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Toddlers and Pacifiers: A Case Study

November 29, 2016 |  by  |  3 YO, guest author, parenting, Success Stories

Let’s have some realtalk about pacifiers. Pacifiers will eventually cause sleep problems for most of you. But the benefits of using a paci are so significant, I encourage all parents of newborns to really try to get their baby to use one for sleep. Yes, even knowing that it will be an issue for many later. It’s absolutely worth it.

If the pacifier doesn’t cause sleep problems – huzzah! Now you can wait till they’re a toddler to ditch the pacifier. And your toddler will happily give up the paci. Toddlers are known for their flexibility after all.

A friend of mine recently broke her toddlers pacifier habit using the Paci Fairy approach. And she was kind enough to share her experiences here…

A Paci Fairy Case Study

“Just make sure you get rid of the pacifier by the time she’s 3”.

These fateful words, spoken by my cousin the orthodontist, have haunted me since shortly after my daughter’s first birthday…

A Paci Addict is Born

Anna was addicted to her pacifier within her first two days of life. I remember being in the hospital, frustrated that she wouldn’t stop crying, even with a clean diaper and refusing to eat. She took to the paci immediately, surprising me that even as a 24-hour-old baby, she could tell the difference between her need to eat and her need to suck.

Pacifiers, like most things related to parenting, are things everyone has a strong opinion about. We were warned it would cause “nipple confusion” and affect her ability to nurse (it didn’t – she started taking bottles at daycare at 16 weeks without issue; I exclusively breastfed her until she was 16 months old). We were warned it would impact her sleep (it didn’t – she had terrible sleep for other reasons, but we never once had to wake up to re-insert her paci). We were warned it would give her ear infections (she’s the only kid I know who has never had an ear infection).

Then we saw the dentist on her first birthday, who told us it was time to get rid of it. Pacifier use after age one, he told us, could cause a host of dental symptoms, including jaw misalignment, palate malformations. After doing our own research and talking to my orthodontist cousin, we decided to wait until age 3.

Like most parents, we had a huge number of issues including, but not limited to, Anna’s sleep. By the time she was 1, most of those issues had resolved themselves. Taking away her paci and risking messing up everything was finally working was not even an option.

The Toddler Pacifier Love Affair

As Anna grew into a toddler and then a pre-schooler, her dependence on her paci got stronger and stronger, instead of fading away into the past like I had hoped. We battled tantrums about wanting to “go visit paci” (it lived in the crib and nowhere else). When sick, hurt, sad, or tantruming about anything else, paci was the fix-all. I could practically see the dopamine flood her system the second she popped it in her mouth; her eyes would go soft, muscles relax, frustration leave her body. It was nothing short of magical. She only used it to sleep and soothe – but “only” is a relative term when describing the two things she (and I) depended on the most.

I continued blissfully until my husband had a particularly trying battle with her one morning to leave her paci in bed. “What’s the plan for taking away the paci?” he texted me while I was at work. I gave him every excuse in the book why the answer was “not now” – we’re leaving on a trip soon! My parents are going to watch her! I don’t want to do it right before her third birthday!

The other complicating factor? I was pregnant. All the experts told me the same thing: lose the paci at least a few months before baby comes; otherwise, with such a huge transition and need for comfort, it would be another year. Which put us at age 4.5. It had to be now.

Enter the Paci Fairy

pacifier fairy
I dove into the depths of the internet searching for strategies on how to take away Anna’s beloved paci without causing permanent psychological damage – or, more importantly, major disruptions to her finally-awesome sleep pattern. We settled on the “pacy fairy” approach – a deity (much like the tooth fairy) who would come in the middle of the night, take away the pacis from the big kids and give them to babies, leaving presents in return.

Luckily, there is a ton of support online for our story. There are YouTube videos of the Paci Fairy herself flying over houses. Clips of Elmo putting his pacis under his pillow for the fairy. Photos of smiling toddlers receiving their gifts the morning after her visit.

So we told Anna the Fairy only came to visit big girls, and would come when she was ready. We knew this approach wouldn’t work if she didn’t feel some element of control over how or when it happened. We went on Amazon, spent an absurd amount of money on gifts, and started the process of preparing her.

paci fairy present
After months of discussing it with her and building it up, we finally picked a date to pull the plug. We spent a week asking her every day after preschool if she felt ready. “YES!” she would scream. “I’m ready! I’m a big girl! I want the paci fairy to bring presents!”. We practiced giving them up. We role played.

The day before The Big Day, Anna came home from school and threw a tantrum because the Paci Fairy *wasn’t* coming that day. She wanted her presents. She was ready. It was time.

Bedtime rolled around, and we showed Anna her note that the Paci Fairy had left her. She was excited, and seemed to understand this could only mean one thing: PRESENTS.

The First Night

She took her bath as normal, put on pajamas, and then went to her crib to discover: the pacis were gone. And it hit her like a freight train.
Anna’s brain switched over from logic mode into panic mode. She started clawing me, trying to get to the Paci Fairy mailbox where she’d last seen them before bath. She sobbed hysterically. She started screaming “I’m not ready!” at the top of her lungs. She cried for her pacis, saying she didn’t want presents, she didn’t want the Paci Fairy, she wanted nothing to do with any of this.

There was absolutely nothing we could do or say to calm her down. I hugged her, telling her I understood how hard this must be for her. Her dad went into disciplinary mode, telling her we were going to leave her in her crib alone until she calmed down. Nothing was helping; she literally couldn’t hear us. It was a mach-5, all-systems-go, take-no-prisoners meltdown of epic proportions.

toddler meltdown pacifier

Dad and I left her alone to tantrum safely in her crib while we went downstairs to re-group and strategize. I was equal parts heartbroken by her crying and having my own panic attack that we would never get her to calm down. Every few minutes I’d go into her room to take her out of bed and give her a hug, but the absence of me giving her a pacifier only made her more angry.

Dad was adamant we had to stop going into her room altogether. We were 45 minutes deep into the tantrum at this point, and I was losing my intuition about what she needed from us, and was instead doing what I needed – to go in and comfort her. Which was making it worse. So I hid in my bed while he took over.

Dad went into Anna’s room and asked if she wanted to come out of bed and sit with him. She said yes. He said okay, fine: she could come out, but only if she agreed to take five deep breaths with him in the chair instead of running to find her pacis. She cried no, she didn’t want to do that, so he left the room.

She screamed for him to come back, and the entire conversation repeated. And then repeated again. And again. Dad would not negotiate on his side of the bargain: you can come out as long as you sit in the chair with me and take five deep breaths.

After the Storm

On his sixth departure from her room, she finally cried out that she agreed to his terms. So out she came from bed, and they sat together. And she took deep breaths. And she started to calm down. He asked if she wanted to come see me (still hiding in my bed). She said yes. Okay, he said, but first more deep breaths. She agreed.

By the time they got to our room, she was puffy-eyed and exhausted, but calm. She threw herself into my arms. She seemed to have forgotten why she was throwing the tantrum in the first place.

So the three of us sat in bed together and talked about how change is so hard, and we are all sad to say goodbye to the paci. We talked about how brave Anna is for letting it go, and how this means she’s a big girl, and we were proud of her. And to reward her, other than her gifts in the morning, we could read a few books in our bed before she went to sleep.

post tantrum bliss

One Dr. Seuss book later, Anna was back to acting like her normal self. I asked if she felt more ready now to go to bed (an hour past her bedtime), and she said yes. Then she looked at me and said, “Momma. I was SO mad. SO SO SO SO angry. I wanted my paci. But now I don’t have my paci, and look how happy I am!”

Life After Paci?

My girl was a few weeks short of her third birthday and for the first time, bowled me over with her bravery, self-reflection, and insight. And I cried tears of pride and told her I couldn’t believe how grown up she was.

She went right to sleep, and slept right through till morning without a peep. We had a huge celebration in the morning, showering her with praise and gifts and love. She beaming with pride that she was so brave and such a big girl.

Anna still asks for her paci now and then, but for the most part, she has done wonderfully without it since that first weekend. I have learned so much about who she is as a person, and her maturity, and her resilience. Giving up the paci was a milestone in so many ways for both of us, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.


27 Comments


  1. Thank you for writing this. My daughter just turned 2 and loves her ‘binky’. We just started telling her that it’s only for sleep time after talking to her dentist. It’s hard telling her no when she wants it for comfort, after all that is what we conditioned her to use it for. She’s a wonderful sleeper and I think it’s partly because of the pacifier. It’s also a little sad to me that I’m making her grow up. I hope that by putting limitations on her time with it that she’ll grow out of it.

    • I feel like you’re blaming yourself by saying “you conditioned her.” I would flip it and say some babies love to suck! You recognized that because you’re a tuned-in parent, and thus provided her with a paci. As she’s getting older the paci isn’t good for her, something the dentist pointed out. Lots of things babies use are GREAT when they’re babies, not so much when they’re older. I’m guessing you don’t swaddle her anymore either 😉

      Also you’re not making her grow up. She IS growing up. Because thats what kids do 😉

  2. My daughter had one wubbanub we dubbed “Wubby”. I was strict about her only having it for nap and bedtime…and then at 16 months she got a stomach virus and molars all in one week and I caved to letting her use it all the time.

    Then one day at 22 months I noticed that wubby had a few holes. I further inspected him and discovered she had bit through the nipple. Sadly, I had to get rid of him, but I’ll buy her a new one and all will be right again…nope. She wanted nothing to do with the new one. The worst part was we had a 16 hour road trip coming up. She was a mess without her precious Wubby.
    Once we got back from our road trip and I cut the nipple off Wubby and let her keep it and the new one. The first thing she said to my husband was, “fix it Daddy.” He explained to her that we couldn’t fix Wubby. She seemed to be okay with it. I can’t remember how the loss of Wubby affected her sleep, but I remember how it affected our road trip.
    So I inadvertently weaned her from the paci before 2 years old.
    I’m interested to know if the mother in the case study, knowing what she knows now, would wean her 2nd one from the paci earlier than 3, or at the same age?

    • Good question! Especially now that I have a second addict in the making. I probably would ditch it closer to 2 next time – once her sleep settled into a more reliable pattern, we could use an okay-to-wake clock for early mornings, and she was less defiant than a 3-year-old. It helped us on NUMEROUS car and plane trips, I’d have missed out on those, but she’s adjusted fine without the paci since we dropped it and I assume the same thing would’ve happened had we ditched it earlier. 🙂

  3. Any tips for applying this to thumb suckers at 3? Really difficult to break this habit as it seems to be based on willpower (not my 3yr olds strongest point!)?? (aside from odd thumb guards or foul tasting chemical paint on the nail?)

    • Great question, and unfortunately one I don’t know the answer to! I personally was a thumb sucker and just stopped one day with no intervention, if that helps. But trust me, there were times when I *wished* Anna had been a thumb sucker so I wouldn’t have to deal with removing the paci. That’s real fear talking.

    • We just recently weaned our almost 3 year old (2yr 8months) from thumbsucking by using the popular thumbguard. My son sucked his thumb from 2months until 2 weeks ago, nothing else worked. He also had stuffed animals that we realized were “enablers” as he would only suck his thumb when he had any stuffed animal or to sleep so we had to take them away and tell him they were on holiday. We used the thumbguard for approximately 14 days. Hole this helps

  4. We are having a similar struggle with a nighttime bottle at 3 and 1/2. We’ve talked a lot about soon she will need to be a big girl and give them to her baby cousin, but haven’t pulled the plug as we still have other sleep issues that we were trying to resolve first (I know, it’s a chicken-egg situation here). This is a good story to read as I can see it happening just like this for us (the tantrum/panic part, not the “yea, success!” part yet). Thanks for sharing

  5. My daughter is 4.5 and still using a paci. She was exactly as you described as an infant, Alexis. She needed to suck. We nurse on and off for hours. She started with a paci in hospital as a newborn and she breastfed until she was 21 months when she self weaned. My son is 22 months and also uses his paci. So, we’ve talked about paci fairy and I think what I will do is get the paci fairy to come and get both kids paci’s at same time. I feel so sad for my 4.5 year old…. She will be crushed. But I also want her to realize how strong and brave she can be. I really needed this article and am going to start implementing these strategies from this article. Thank-you, Alexis!

  6. Does the Paci Fairy technique work for toddlers under 3, or those who may not be mature enough to understand the terms (or those who may have developmental delays that affect speech, comprehension, etc.)? My son just turned 3 and is in speech therapy. He’s been chewing through the binkies, and I show him when I throw them away and explain why, so he seems to get that. But I worry that when the last binky is gone, he’ll just howl for 1-2 hours after bedtime without it, which would wake up Big Sis next door. Thoughts?

    • I have a similar question – my son is 2 1/2 and very attached to Binkie. He’s not quite old enough to understand the Paci Fairy I don’t think but we REALLY need to break the habit. He only has 1 left and we have no intention of replacing it if it gets lost. Is cold turkey cruel? :/ If doing it, should we adjust bedtime earlier? And is a good ol’ CIO a possible thing for this at 2 1/2? 🙁

      Thanks,
      Melissa

    • I think all kids around that age understand it to some extent. We started talking to her about the paci like 3-4 mo before her 3rd birthday, and this story happened probably 2 mo before her birthday. So it depends on the kid… but I think they understand more they they let on most of the time.

    • My fist son was a chewer too. At around 2 years old we gave him a natural rubber pacifier after he chewed through the last regular one we had. It was a lot sturdier, so could handle the chewing. I showed him that the others were all broken and that was all that was left. He didn’t like it at first, but after looking at the places we had kept the backups and seeing they were all broken or gone he understood that was it. He would never suck on the rubber one, and wasn’t as attached to it. So after a month he didn’t even use it anymore. Maybe something similar will work for your son.

  7. Thanks for sharing Alexis! I loved reading about the process you had with her. We got so much flack on using with my oldest and I questioned whether I should with soon-to-come #2. But, after reading it encouraged me to do what has worked best for us.

    • Well it wasn’t MY toddler (I didn’t write this!) but the evidence is clear – pacis are great for babies. Will it be a struggle to get rid of later? Eh. Maybe. Who knows. If so, it’s nothing you all can’t handle!

  8. This is interesting…our 3.5 year old is still obsessed with his paci. We’ve had good luck getting him to use it only for sleeping, but I know when we need to get rid of it, naps will be a thing of the past! Interestingly, our pediatric dentist said not to worry about it yet. He said the risk of taking it away too soon, and him switching to his fingers or thumb is more important than taking it away.

    • So the evidence is mixed but there is definitely a risk of pallet issues and pacifier use. The same holds true for finger sucking. Which of course you can’t control. The studies also suggest that most thumb suckers stop on their own around 4. So not sure what the right call is there honestly?

  9. This story sounds exactly like our situation – warned to ditch the pacifier by 3, talked about it for a long time in advance, spent a fortune on toys for the fairies to bring when they took the pacifier away etc etc. The difference was that while my son wasn’t sad to say goodbye, no crying and no tantrums at bed time he simply couldn’t sleep and if he did manage to go to sleep he couldn’t stay asleep. Our gorgeous boy who had slept through from 6 months was suddenly awake until 8:30 at night, waking up 3 or 4 times during the night, staying awake for a long time, getting very distressed and then waking up at 4:30-5am!!! This went on for two weeks before we finally gave up from sheer exhaustion (we also have a baby) and gave the pacifier back. It has taken nearly a month to get him back into a decent sleep pattern with a pacifier. He genuinely didn’t seem to understand that the pacifier was helping him to sleep. So he is 3 now and firmly addicted to the pacifier for sleep – what now????

    • I’m not as much of an expert as Alexis 😉 but I would think you should give it 6 months and try again. We are now hearing the “real” cutoff for pacis is their 4th birthday, so give it another go when you get closer to that milestone. Good luck!

  10. Thanks for sharing! I have a 19 mo binky addict on my hands. I keep hearing not to worry too much about it until closer to 2 or even 3, but our problem is she wants it ALLL THE TIME. Any tips on how to make it a nap/bedtime only thing? I try and explain it to her but she just doesn’t get it yet. I still selfishly rely on it for the car and sometimes when we are out 🙁 Any tips would be greatly appreciated!

    • A 19mo is old enough to understand boundaries. I think just explain and reinforce “no binky in car, yes binky in bed”, or “binky stays in bed!” over and over and over. Good luck!

  11. Thank you so much! I needed to read this! Now I have a plan….before his 3rd bday. Perfect!!!!

  12. My daughter, massively addicted to her pacifier at all naps/bedtime, started chewing a hole in the nubs when she was about 2.5. As she chewed up each paci, she rejected it in favor of a new one. I wanted to replace them but decided against it.
    Eventually, she chewed a hole in the last one. I left them lying in her crib so she had access to them, but I think once she couldn’t properly suck on them, they just started to annoy her. They almost seemed to gross her out. Soon she outright rejected one at bedtime, and that was that.
    Honestly, she was a crap sleeper before, and she’s a crap sleeper now (at 3), so that wasn’t a deciding factor for us.
    I’m hoping the younger pacifier addict (now almost 2) follows the same play (which of course means she won’t).

  13. Thanks so much for sharing. I have a 2.5 yr old, and am absolutely terrified knowing we’re going to have to take the paci away soon. I know it shouldn’t be this big of a deal, but in my head it’s huge. My son was a horrible sleeper the first year and a half, and genuinely relies on it for soothing (tantrums, sadness, bad days). I know we also need to potty train soon, so I’m afraid doing the two too close together will be problematic. So I’m having a hard time determining when to do what. I keep telling myself, this is nothing we can’t handle, but gearing myself up for bad sleep and a fussy toddler is a bit disconcerting. But, this too shall pass!

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