Dr. Levine

To Wean or not to Wean, that is the Question:

Children can become quite attached to their fingers, thumbs, pacifiers, bottles, blankets, and stuffed animals, especially since they provide a source of comfort for babies.  Many parents struggle with questions about when it’s appropriate to use them and when to try to break the habit.  Let’s break it down by item category:
 
Pacifiers: I am in favor of offering a baby a pacifier once breastfeeding has been well established.  For one, it’s a great way to soothe a fussy infant, but also, pacifiers have been shown to decrease the incidence of SIDS in infants.  As your child gets older and figures out other means of soothing through play and world exploration, you might want to limit pacifier use to naps and night time.  However, as many good things must come to an end, I typically recommend taking the beloved pacifier away around 9-12 months before babies get too reliant on them.
 
Fingers and Thumbs: If your child won’t take a pacifier, but finds her thumb or her fingers, that’s okay too.  It may be a harder habit to break later on, but kudos to your child for figuring out on her own how to self-soothe! As your child approaches pre-school age, try to limit finger and thumb sucking to times when your child is not busy playing.  Rather than becoming the “thumb police” and constantly nagging your child to take her fingers out of her mouth, consider an approach that puts the child in control.  You can say something like, “Honey, I see you feel like sucking your thumb right now.  That’s your choice, but if you want to suck your thumb please go into your room and do it in private.  We are playing downstairs and don’t want to get your saliva all over the toys.”  By limiting thumb sucking to private time or sleep time and suggesting that your child will miss out on all of the fun happening during the day, she will be less likely to walk around with a finger in her mouth all of the time.  And I find that by age 6, most children tend to naturally give up the habit on their own.  I am not in favor of bad tasting nail polish or other measures along those lines because ultimately I would rather it be the child’s choice to give up the habit when she feels ready.
 
Bottles: Children can become quite attached to their “ba ba” especially as they get older.  Therefore, I recommend offering an infant the bottle at scheduled intervals throughout the day rather than allowing him to simply walk around with a bottle at all times, taking a sip when he is thirsty.  I also suggest introducing a sippy cup at 6 months even though most babies won’t know what to do with it at that age.  The earlier you introduce it, the earlier he will figure it out, and I find that most babies do achieve this skill by 9-12 months if it’s introduced early.  Once your child is a pro at the sippy cup, replace the bottle with it.  I like to see most children off the bottle by 15-18 months.  The longer you wait, the more attached he will get, and the harder it will be to resist the pleas of a verbal toddler!
 
Stuffed Animals and Blankets: My advice for these items is similar to my advice for thumb and finger sucking.  Around the pre-school age, I like to see children using their hands for play and exploration rather than holding onto a beloved object.  Stuffed animals and favorite blankets can be a huge source of comfort to a child, but I believe they should be reserved for sleep time and private time in a child’s bedroom.
 
The common theme with all of this advice is to applaud your children for figuring out ways to self-soothe but also to empower them to make the choice for when they feel like playing and when they need a little comfort.  With time, they will soon realize that it’s much more fun to be engaged in family time and play time, which will naturally help them self-wean off of their comforts.
 
 

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Dr. Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing pediatrician, author, speaker, children’s health advocate, and father of four.

Dr. Levine

Dr. Alanna Levine is a New York based pediatrician and a mom of two children.