Looking at this photo I was reminded that I was once a shy, skinny little kid with ever-present afro-puffs and an equally ever-present thumb sucking habit. A habit which I hate to admit didn’t end completely until I was nearly an adult. As a child I grew up under the constant threat from my 8 siblings and some well meaning adults that my thumb sucking would no doubt ensure an overbite that would have to be corrected with painful braces later on in my childhood. However, no overbite ever manifested. As a matter of fact I had quite an even row of upper and lower teeth until I was about 10 years old when my lower central incisor shifted to make room for incoming molars, leaving me with a wonky smile that my mother lovingly deemed my “unique personality” ensuring no braces, painful or otherwise, for me.
Clearly, I continued a normal childhood technique of self-soothing WAY too long, but the trip down memory lane did start me thinking about how long is “too long” to indulge children in their self-soothing items like pacifiers and bottles?
My daughter rejected the pacifier at about 13 months. She turned to singing to herself as a toddler for self-soothing and never looked back. In contrast, my son was still using his pacifier at the age of 3. And for at least a year, I had been warned by family and strangers alike that he would develop an over bite that would have to be corrected with painful braces later on, as well as he was just too darned old to still have a pacifier! Well intentions aside, I focused on the best practices for my family. I asked myself is he happy? (Yes) And is he safe (Not so much) He had now started the habit of biting through them. When the first one had to be thrown away because it was no longer safe, he cried over the dearly departed with such heartfelt sorrow, I immediately ran out and purchased him a new stash of them. But as his habit became to bite them more than be soothed by them, even I could see it was time that he and I came to a new understanding. So whenever he would bite his pacifier, making it unsafe, we would throw it away and not purchase any new ones. Soon his stash was down to 4 pacifiers, then 3. Then within a week, 3 became 2. Not long after, he walked over to me and handed me the final one and announced, “I’m done.” Braces did not ensue. No dental issues at all, although when his cute little lisp persisted beyond first grade he was briefly in speech therapy to correct it.
At the time, I honestly didn’t think to ask the therapist if his lisp could have been pacifier related. So recently I took up the subject with my good friend, doctor Elaine Witter, RN, JD,DDS and president of Oral Care Solutions Consulting, for a doctor/mommy perspective on the subject.
Elaine was a pediatric nurse prior to marrying and having children of her own, a fact she feels greatly influenced her opinion about pacifiers. “A pacifier satisfies a baby’s need to suck and it also can help a baby learn to soothe themselves.” Like my oldest child, Elaine’s oldest daughter enjoyed the use of a pacifier as an infant, but was able to soothe herself to sleep prior to her 2nd birthday. Doctor Witter has been practicing family dentistry with her husband, Doctor Don Witter in Maryland for over 20 years, and admits that becoming a dentist has given her a slightly different perspective on pacifiers since then. “They can still be beneficial for an infant or young toddler, however it is important to put limits on pacifier use. As a dentist, I recommend that parents START to wean their child from the pacifier before their 3rd birthday. Yes, it is possible for a child to continue pacifier use a little longer without damage, but earlier is best to be on the safe side. Weaning also becomes more difficult the older the child gets.” I can attest to that! Negotiations with an adorable 3 year old for a beloved item can be tough on any parent since they have us at a slight advantage; we remember the tears long after they’ve forgotten them.
Doctor Witter goes on to caution, “Bottles are different because they contain milk or juice that can lead to tooth decay because of prolonged exposure. This is especially true at bedtime. Extensive use of the bottle, the pacifier, or a thumb or finger suck habit into toddlerhood most certainly can have lasting consequences on a child’s oral health.” She explains, “The roof of the mouth is not completely formed until adolescence. These habits can alter the shape of the mouth and the placement of teeth. This can cause problems with chewing, speech, and appearance.” The good news is that my son and I were fortunate enough to avoid expensive and possibly painful orthodontic treatment to repair any damage our prolonged habits may have caused. But the bad news is, it is possible that waiting to wean him off of his pacifier until after his 3rd birthday may have caused his need for speech therapy later on. Oops. My bad.
As we wrapped up, I wanted to know what is the most important thing parents should know?
“The most important thing I would like parents to take away from this conversation is that moderation is key when using a pacifier or bottle. They are totally appropriate, even beneficial, to use in infancy, but as a child ages into toddlerhood, serious consideration should be given towards a proper weaning schedule (starting at 2 years for pacifier and starting at 6 months for the bottle) in order to prevent long term oral heath complications.”
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Until next time, remember child development is human development.