Did you know that some babies start sucking their fingers before they’re even born? The reflex of non-nutritive sucking is a strong natural reflex for many babies, and it’s part of the normal development process.

For many parents, pacifiers are an essential addition to their parenting toolkit. They can help soothe children when they’re upset; provide a temporary distraction during moments of stress or discomfort; provide a comforting activity during daily routines; help your child adjust to new situations; and even help them fall asleep.

But when is your child too old to be using a pacifier? And can extended use of a pacifier affect your child's speech and language development?

Every child is different, and there are no hard and fast rules about when a child should be weaned off their binky. However, many experts agree that it’s time to ditch the pacifier between 1-3 years of age. As your child gets older, children develop a more ingrained habit that is harder to break over time.

How can a pacifier affect your child’s ability to communicate?

While pacifiers have many advantages, prolonged use can also present problems for children. These issues can range from breastfeeding to dependency to increased risk for ear infections.

However, I’m going to focus on how they can affect the development of a child’s speech and language skills. A child’s communication abilities and oral development evolves rapidly during the first few years of life. Understanding the potential impact of pacifiers is an important consideration when thinking about the right time to begin weaning.  

  • Lisps: Frequent use of a pacifier in young toddlers can cause their tongue to protrude between their teeth. Not only can this cause potential dental problems, but it can also lead to a “lisp” that makes it hard for children to pronounce their “s” and “z” sounds. You can read more about lisps here.

  • Limited Speech: As your child’s speech develops, you want to give them every opportunity to put these new skills into practice. However, when a pacifier is occupying their mouth, this can discourage or distort their speech.

  • Mouth Structure: Sucking for an extended period of time can actually cause the palette of your child’s mouth to become raised or irregularly positioned. This can cause a speech disorder to develop as they continue to age.

  • Swallowing: Pacifier sucking may also prevent your child from developing normal swallowing patterns. This can result in difficulties with feeding as well as trouble articulating certain sounds or words.

Tips for weaning your child off a pacifier

As children get older, the risks of using a pacifier slowly start to outweigh the advantages. While some kids will naturally stop using pacifiers as they age, others need some extra help. Here’s some strategies to help ease the transition and naturally help your child wean off their binky overtime:

  • Limit Use: If you’ve been giving your child their pacifier at every waking moment, begin to slowly ration their use. You can reserve the pacifier for times of stress, or you can set a schedule when the pacifier is allowed, such as before bedtime.

  • Substitution: Find other beloved objects that can replace the pacifier. Try an interesting activity like a coloring book, a comforting item like a toy or blanket, or an engaging book. Your child will have an easier time breaking their habit when they receive something in exchange.

  • Be Persistent: When our child is upset or having a meltdown, usually our first instinct is to reach for the pacifier. However, weaning them off takes persistence. Plus, there could be many other reasons why your child is crying: maybe they're hungry, or need a diaper change, or are bored.

  • Use Praise: Make sure to extol your child’s progress each time they choose not to use their pacifier. Compliment them excessively and demonstrate how proud you are. You can even give them a small reward, such a toy, sticker, or snack.

  • Cold Turkey: The verdict is still out whether taking your child’s pacifier away (and never returning it) is an appropriate method. You ultimately have to decide what you think is best for your child. However, if you do remove their pacifier permanently, get ready for tears and temper tantrums. What’s important is that you remain firm and not give in. You should probably also give your child a fair warning before doing this.