The Pacifier Dilemma
By Lynn Adams
I took away my son’s pacifier when he was four years old, and I still regret it.
It seemed like the perfect time. We’d just watched Toy Story 3, in which Andy sorts through his childhood belongings before heading to college. He decides to store the important ones, including Buzz Lightyear, in the attic.
My son, James, who has autism, took an interest in our attic. What was up there? What could we put up there?
I jumped at the chance. From his toddler years, I’d done my best to restrict the pacifier to his bed. I was a child psychologist. The very thought of running into one of my patients around town, pacifier-sucking behemoth in tow, made me want to hide my head.
Plus, everything I’d read cautioned about pacifier use once kids started getting their permanent teeth.
The pacifier was a sign of weakness, of immaturity, of difference. I knew James had some developmental delays, but when he was four the idea that he had autism was relatively new. James was attending a regular pre-kindergarten, and I thought he needed to look like a regular pre-kindergartner. Even in bed.
So James and I packed his few remaining pacifiers into a Ziploc bag and made a trip up to the attic. “Where do we put them?” he asked, looking around at the vast, dusty, hot, mostly empty space.
I suggested a ledge near the attic entrance, “so we can visit.” He set them down, gave them a little pat, and said, “Bye, passes.” He climbed down the attic stairs and headed to the playroom, seeming none the worse for wear.
James never asked for his pacifier again, but that didn’t mean he didn’t miss it. Like lots of kids with autism, he had uneven language development. At that point, he’d still never told me he was hungry, never told me he was thirsty. Even though he could give the proper technical name for any construction truck he might spot around town.
When he had a strong need, he’d have a tantrum, and I’d have to figure it out.
I have a family history of premature pacifier disposal. My older brother loved his pacifier, but my mother decided he needed to give it up at barely age two. A friend suggested she take my brother to the zoo and feed it to the baby raccoons, reasoning that they needed it more than he did. My brother had nightmares about the baby raccoons for months afterward.
I knew all about the raccoons. Letting James use a pacifier for two extra years was my way of learning from my mother’s mistake. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have let him keep it as long as he wanted and use it whenever and wherever he wanted.
The pacifier wasn’t a problem but a solution.
Looking back through home movies recently, I confirmed something: James’ younger sister started sucking her fingers before she was an hour old.
“Wow, look at her,” I say in the video. “So strong.” Seeing the video reminded me of how competent infants can be.
I once saw an infant in a Baby Bjorn at a parade. The baby girl rubbed her forehead against her mother’s chest, soothing herself to sleep as the marching bands blared. It was 1 p.m., after all. Naptime.
That kind of self-regulation is so hard for people with autism. So hard for James. James used the pacifier in his bed, to help him cope with the stress of being tired and of being alone in his room. With all that was going wrong with James, his self-soothing with the pacifier was something right.
What’s two extra years? If James had done as his sister did with her fingers, kept sucking his pacifier for comfort until age six, then given it up on his own, the whole thing would’ve been a success story for James. I shouldn’t have butted in.
I’ve developed a rule of thumb. It started with accepting James’ autism, and my own limitations in coping with it, even though, before his birth, autism was my specialty for ten years.
My first choice is always to find what James is doing right and bolster that. Tackling a problem—which might exist only in my mind—is always the last resort.
Lynn Adams, PhD, is a child psychologist and mother of two. Find her writing and information about her consultation work at lynnadamsphd.com.