Win-Win Weaning: Baby Steps for Healthy Habits

Weaning 315

All mammals are born with an instinctive sucking reflex — it’s essential for survival, and it provides comfort for little ones adapting to a new, chaotic world. For infants and toddlers, the object suckled may vary in form, and the length of time and level of dependency may differ, but the question of when and how to wean consistently arises among parents.

I’ve found that weaning from habitual sucking is an important baby step toward children’s lifelong healthy habits, and the way parents approach the change can make all the difference. So, here are my win-win weaning solutions:

Bottles. Start introducing cups to babies around 6 months old. The new tableware may seem extra-intriguing when filled with unexpected tasty beverages, like diluted juice. It’s important to use bottles and sippy cups only for mealtimes — not as security devices. This teaches healthy habits of drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry (versus toting drinks/food as an all-day crutch). Between 12 and 15 months, replace bottles with cups one meal at a time, saving the nighttime feeding for last.

Pacifiers. Sucking a pacifier too long can deter or disrupt speech development and affect mouth formation. I suggest taking the “de-pacifier plunge” between 9 and 12 months to teach self-soothing habits. From experience, I’ve noticed that going cold turkey seems to be the easiest and most successful strategy. Though tots will cry, cry, cry for about three days, they adapt relatively quickly. If toddlers are older and capable of reasoning, parents can embark on creative solutions, like a visit from the “Pacifier Fairy.”

Thumb-sucking. Until age 4, it’s OK for a child to suck his or her thumb, but by 5 years old, it causes overbites. The good news is that a recent study showed only 15 percent of 4-year-olds still suck their thumbs. The tough news is, those who continued past age 4 were usually power struggling with their parents. To wean thumb-sucking, focus on facts, not persuasion. Parents can point out physical effects like calloused, wrinkled thumbs, teach about germs and visit pediatric dentists. Humiliating or punishing children for thumb-sucking makes things worse, so stick to praising the positive. If nothing seems to work, contact your pediatrician for support and ideas.

I’ve raised two little girls and know the parental pains associated with distress over bottles, binkies and thumbs, but I also know that unleashing children from external, physical comforters allows them to cultivate internal coping techniques. Weaning truly is an important step toward developing healthy habits.

— Janie Chai is a pediatrician at Randolph Pediatrics.