When they are babies, we are only too happy for our kids to have pacifiers, but as time goes by, parents worry that it’s been going on for a bit long, reinforced by messages from schools and dentists about the potential repercussions of late pacifier weaning like speech impediments and dental complications. Then the hard negotiations begin with our toddlers. These ‘negotiations’ (in the form of tears and tantrums) indicate that actually, this is a very hard thing for our littlies to do. So what do little minds think about pacifiers and what is the reason our kids cling so lovingly to their silicone friends?
Why do babies adopt pacifiers in the first place?
A pacifier is what Pediatrician and Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot called a “Transitional Object”. It is a physical thing (think: dummies, thumbs or blankies) adopted by the child to ease the anxiety of separation from their first caregiver, and serves as a placeholder until the child has created a mental idea of that person, which then provides a sense of security and comfort. In this way, it helps the child transition from dependency to independence in their own minds. In other words, it helps them master the loss of dependency which is an important emotional milestone. In order to do this, the baby uses a pacifier as a powerful tool to learn to separate and use their own minds as they slowly gain independence. Why do they need this? Well, babies and toddlers don’t have the luxury of complicated language to understand the world around them. So what they do is they learn about the outside world through their senses. These sensorial experiences have an emotional counterpart inside the baby that then helps the baby slowly take that experience inside themselves and make sense of things, in the best way they can.
Pacifiers promote independence, not codependency
So in this way, sucking the dummy helps ‘spark’ the idea of what makes them feel safe. Over time (and through repetition) that ‘safe’ idea transitions from outside ‘on the pacifier’ to ‘inside’ themselves and they slowly internalize the concept and skill of self soothing. At first this is too hard to do alone because their minds haven’t developed enough yet. But over time and after many sucks, they eventually learn to think “I’m safe” without the use of the dummy prompt and will separate from it naturally. In this way, it’s a bit like having a learners licence with a co-driver – giving the opportunity to practice a hard independent skill before you’re ready to go out there alone. If you look at it in this way, it’s actually a wonderfully empowering thing when a child is using a pacifier, because they are finding and forming their own internal resources with each and every suck. This process of becoming emotionally separate can take several years to become consolidated and can take much of Pre-School to master.
What should parents do?
The pacifier is a deeply meaningful object and represents the child’s inside world. For this reason, whenever the weaning begins, the best thing a parent can do is ensure that it is not an imposed or abrupt decision and that it is done in close collaboration with your child. If your child is really adamant that it’s not the right time, then perhaps give it more time, continue talking with them about what it means and how they feel about it. All the while keeping the conversation age appropriate and in language they can process. Also take care not to initiate these discussions when there are other major stressors taking place (like changing classes or while potty training) as this will make things a lot more complicated.
The bottom line
The pacifier is a physical object that little kids use to negotiate separations, manage loss and practice building inner stability. In this way it is a wonderfully natural way for a child to practice independence. So the most important thing to keep in mind is that the way your child gives it up will fuse with their internal experience of loss. Making it really important that the whole business of weaning feels kind, gentle, communicative and most of all, collaborative.