When Should Your Child Ditch the Pacifier?

Plus, tips for keeping little teeth healthy
Pacifier photo: IStock

Binky, paci, wubbanub: There’s no shortage of words to describe those soothing little suckers. But at some point, whether your youngster prefers a pacifier or a thumb, that self-soothing habit quickly turns from blissful to stressful for many parents. But are pacifiers or thumb-sucking really all that bad?

“Parents are a little more worried about it than I am,” says Dr. Kevin Donly, the president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Fingers or pacifiers don’t usually affect tooth development, he says, but they can affect tooth positioning. And there’s a lot of data out there on pacifier use and thumb-sucking, but it’s hard to draw a conclusion on how much of an effect those habits can have. That’s because youngsters use them differently. “All kids suck at a different power rate,” Donly explains. One child might, say, use a pacifier more as a placeholder, while another might really use it with great force.

Donly says he doesn’t get concerned until kids reach age 5, thanks to baby teeth, which will fall out anyway, so their positioning is less concerning. But, he warns, once those front teeth are gone (likely after age 7), prolonged sucking can cause bigger issues in permanent teeth that are more difficult to correct.

And if you really want to encourage your little one to kick the habit, Donly says not to reach for anything spicy, like Tabasco, to put on your child’s thumb.

“When you wake up in the morning, you rub your eyes,” Donley says. “When you get that in your eyes, it really hurts like the devil. So we don’t encourage that.”

Still uncomfortable with how long that paci is lingering? Take heart, parents. “Ninety-nine percent of kids stop by age 5,” Donly says. Why? That’s when they usually start grade school, he says. “Peer pressure is a rough thing.”

Brush Up On the Basics

Kevin Donly
Kevin Donly

Your cherub might only have two teeth by 12 months, but that precious grin still needs proper TLC — including regular brushing twice a day, experts say. Here are a few tips from Donly to keep those little teeth healthy.

Start early: The AAPD recommends finding a “dental home” for your child by age 1. “People say, ‘Kids don’t have cavities that early.’ Exactly! You go in for immunizations to keep them from getting disease — so we want to see them before they have cavities,” Donly says.

Stay involved: You might be surprised at how long you need to actively manage your child’s brushing. “I’ve had parents come tell me their 3-year-olds can brush great, so they let them do it on their own on,” Donly says. But your toddler probably doesn’t brush those teeth well at all. (Sorry, parents!) He recommends letting kids practice brushing their own teeth first, but that parents take over and brush thoroughly after, up until kids are age 5 or 6. 

Skip this: One thing Donly doesn’t recommend for kids? Flavored rinses and mouthwashes. “They are really effective, but we are worried they will swallow instead of
spit,” he says.