Parents around the world spend hours (often in the middle of the night) trying to find an infallible way to help their babies fall asleep and stay asleep.
Many of these families find pacifiers to be an effective tool to aid sleep but then wonder if they should wean their baby from the pacifier. If so, when and how to do it.
*FYI, some of the links in this article on how to get your baby to sleep without pacifier may be affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, we may get a commission (at no extra cost to you). Remember no professional medical advice is being given. Talk to your pediatrician before attempting anything you see on the internet. For more info, please see our disclaimer.
Reasons Why Pacifiers Work
There are multiple reasons why pacifiers work to soothe many babies to sleep, as well as good reasons why it may be beneficial for parents to introduce one in the first place. Research has shown that pacifier use in the first six months of a baby’s life may
- Help reduce the risk of SIDS, as the action of sucking keeps the baby in a lighter stage of sleep from which it is easier to rouse in the event baby is in some distress.
- Help soothe babies who are suffering from colic, as well as meet the basic need for sucking that is instinctively ingrained in a baby for the purpose of calming and comfort.
- Reduce the discomfort of reflux, as babies swallow more saliva, a natural antacid while sucking a pacifier.
The sucking instinct is usually met through feeding, but if the baby does not feed well or for very long at a time, the need to suck may not be met.
Pacifiers can help fill this gap. This turned out to be true for my second baby, who had difficulty latching well for feeds, didn’t feed for very long at a time, and suffered from a moderate case of colic.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective), my little one sort of self-weaned from the pacifier around three months old during a bout of thrush, which made sucking on anything painful for her and caused her to reject the pacifier.
But for families who must actively wean their babies from pacifiers at bedtime, there are a couple of different approaches, depending on the baby’s age and disposition.
A slow-and-steady approach can be used to gradually replace the pacifier with another method of soothing and comforting to sleep, which may work particularly well with younger babies or those who don’t respond well to sudden changes in routine.
Parents of toddlers may have to make the pacifier undesirable or even use a cold turkey approach.
Why Ditch the Pacifier at Bedtime?
While pacifiers can be a very powerful tool to help soothe a baby and get them to sleep, there are multiple reasons why parents may need to wean the pacifier at bedtime, especially as their baby gets older and if certain issues arise.
Experts are not all in agreement, but many warn that prolonged pacifier use may negatively impact the alignment of a baby or toddler’s teeth and may also cause higher incidents of tooth decay.
A 2002 study found pacifier use may be linked to chronic ear infections. However, the authors of the study did not feel that causation was strong enough to recommend that parents restrict or avoid pacifiers altogether.
Many parents may want to wean their baby from falling asleep with a pacifier because the presence of a pacifier is an “all or none” situation. Either the baby is sucking on the pacifier, or they are not.
If a baby falls asleep sucking on the pacifier, at some point, the pacifier will fall out. When the baby reaches arousal at the end of a sleep cycle, the pacifier is gone. This often results in the baby realizing that the thing that helped them fall asleep is no longer there, and they make their displeasure known.
A parent must then reinsert the pacifier to get their unhappy (and possibly wide awake) baby back to sleep. The cycle repeats all night, perhaps once every two to three hours or more.
What Do You Need to Wean from the Pacifier?
To help your baby learn to fall asleep without a pacifier, you may simply need another item, such as a lovey or soft, small blanket for the baby to hold while falling asleep, which can replace the soothing provided by the pacifier.
Your baby will likely not be sucking on this other item, and it’s important that this item ONLY be used while the baby is falling asleep and should be removed once your baby has been laid down in the crib.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that nothing should be in the crib with a baby until the age of one, and parents should always check with their pediatricians before introducing a lovey into the crib during unsupervised sleep.
Other than that, all you really need is patience, consistency, and a plan.
Weaning From the Pacifier – The Slow and Steady Method
If your baby is around four to six months of age (which is a good age to ditch the pacifier), or if your baby is older and tends to need a more gradual approach when introducing changes to routines, you’ll want to take a slow and steady road to pacifier-free sleep.
Depending on your baby and your personal level of patience, this process can take a couple of weeks or even a month to execute.
It’s important to be consistent and realize that, eventually, your baby will learn to fall asleep without the pacifier. It’s also important to note that weaning from the pacifier at bedtime doesn’t necessarily mean you need to teach your baby to fall asleep completely independently.
You can continue to soothe your baby to sleep any way you want, for as long as you want. In fact, this method is sort of designed for families who aren’t yet looking to work on independent sleep.
You will essentially be replacing the pacifier’s suck-to-sleep association with a something-else-to-sleep association that you can live with for as long as you want.
First, decide when you want to begin working on weaning from the pacifier, and decide what you’re going to do to replace the pacifier’s soothing powers.
This could be rocking or cuddling – whatever works best for you. With my oldest, I used this process to change from nursing to sleep to rocking to sleep, which we happily continued until she was ready to learn how to fall asleep on her own.
I personally recommend rocking to sleep as a replacement for sucking to sleep, as it’s sustainable for as long as you wish to continue it.
Once you’ve decided on your timeframe and your replacement soothing action, make sure you have a solid bedtime routine in place that happens in the same order every night.
This may include dim lighting, white noise, a soothing bath, lotion, and a baby massage, a final feeding, books, and/or songs. This builds layers of sleep cues that can follow your child into their preschool years and even beyond.
Now you’re ready to begin.
- Offer the lovey or small soothing blanket, if you have chosen to introduce one at this time, as you sit down to rock or cuddle baby to sleep with the pacifier.
- Pay close attention to your baby as they fall asleep. Just before your baby completely nods off, gently twist the pacifier to break the seal and remove it from baby’s mouth.
- If baby fusses, pop the pacifier back in for a bit – maybe twenty seconds – and then try again. Repeat this process until baby doesn’t fuss, or calms quickly through whatever method (such as rocking) you are using as your replacement sleep cue.
- Lay your sleeping baby down (without the lovey, remember!). Repeat the process during any night wakings.
- Every couple nights, work on removing the pacifier sooner during the time your baby is falling asleep until they are falling asleep without being offered the pacifier at all.
It may also be beneficial to reduce the amount of pacifier use you allow during the day, as this will also help your child learn to rely on other things for comfort.
Weaning the Pacifier for Toddlers
If you’ve put off pacifier weaning until toddlerhood, you may be better off waiting until after your child is two to two and a half years old.
At this point, they’re more capable of understanding that the pacifier is going away, and there are a few ways to address the pacifier’s farewell.
With each of these methods, you can continue to do whatever you wish to help your child fall asleep.
Method One – Cutting the Pacifier
Pacifiers are specially designed to help create a vacuum in a baby’s mouth.
Many parents find it effective to cut a hole in the pacifier or cut a little of the tip-off. This prevents the creation of a vacuum, reducing suction and making the pacifier less desirable.
Many toddlers decide the pacifier isn’t worth it and self-wean. Persistent pacifier users may need more coaxing by removing more of the pacifier until there is hardly anything left to suck. This is only a good method to use if your child does not chew or teeth on the pacifier.
Method Two – Restricting Pacifier Use
Another way to wean the pacifier at bedtime is to restrict how much time your child is allowed to have the pacifier in the first place.
Give a set time, maybe five minutes, during which you know your child will not fall asleep, and then take the pacifier away.
Make sure your child knows that this will be happening ahead of time, so they’re not taken by surprise. Some parents allow the pacifier at naptime but not bedtime, and thus pacifier use organically goes away as the nap is dropped.
Method Three – Cold Turkey
The last resort for getting rid of the pacifier for a toddler or older baby is just to go cold turkey. The pacifier simply goes away at some point, with parents prepping their kids for this change in advance.
Some families have a little good-bye ritual on the last night the pacifier will be used. Others just stop offering it.
It’s a Slow Grind
Whether you decide to take a slow and steady approach or need a quicker, more immediate way to wean from the pacifier, the end goal is that your baby will learn to fall asleep without the pacifier.
Over time, your child’s sleep patterns will change, and some of those night wakings will also begin to disappear, even if you do not take steps to address them.
Once your child learns to fall asleep on their own, without your help at all, then you will all sleep better.