Pacifiers and Security Blankets

March, 2005 by Michael K. Meyerhoff Ed.D.

Executive Director
The Epicenter Inc.
"The Education for Parenthood Information Center"

Many years ago, while my sister was recovering from surgery, I moved in with her family for a couple of weeks so I could look after her young children. One day, after dropping off the two boys at their preschool, I took the 18-month-old girl for a ride around town.

Once we finished errands we drove over to the local library where they had a "Moms and Tots Drop-In Center." I placed little Anna on the floor and watched as she quickly became engrossed in the many toys they had available. I then sat down in a comfortable chair and began perusing the parenting books and magazines displayed on a nearby table.

A few minutes later, the woman supervising the program, whose picture could have been placed next to the definition of "grandmother" in the dictionary, walked over to Anna, yanked the pacifier out of her mouth, and said, "You tell your Daddy that you don't need this anymore!" She turned to me, shoved the pacifier into my hand, and gave me a look that was filled with as much disgust and disdain as her soft, round face could muster.

I resisted the urge to tell her that if she ever again laid a hand on the child without permission, she would be pulling back a bloody stump. Instead, I calmly placed the pacifier back in Anna's mouth and explained, "She might not need it any more, but her mother does."

This story illustrates the two key concerns parents have about their child's use of a pacifier, security blanket, or other such item. At what age does the child's attachment to the object become inappropriate? And why does the child become attached to the object in the first place?

Let's start with the second question. The answer is simple. Pacifiers, security blankets, and other such items are stress reducers. It feels good to suck on the rubber nipple, to rub the soft material across one's cheek, etc., and that good feeling has a wonderfully calming effect. Of course, that spawns a side question. Why does a young child need a stress reducer?

The fact of the matter is that we all need stress reducers in our lives. We tend to think of stress in terms of major problems, such as being under a tight deadline at work, going through a messy divorce, being diagnosed with a serious illness, etc. But life is filled with all sorts of small stress-inducing events and requirements that add up over the course of the day.

Consequently, we all find ways to soothe ourselves. We may find a quiet place to meditate, go for a workout at the gym, imbibe a martini, sneak outside for a cigarette, or pay a visit to our therapist. And at the end of the day, when we need to relax so we can fall asleep, we may watch an entertaining television show, read an interesting book, or spend quality time with our significant other.

Although we tend to envy young children for their "worry-free" lives, that envy may be misplaced. When you are small, the world can be rather intimidating. And when your physical and mental abilities are not fully developed, it is hard to deal with all the easy-for-adults challenges that you are faced with on a daily basis. As a result, while young children don't have to worry about appeasing the boss or paying the mortgage, they do suffer their fair share of stress.

However, their options for reducing stress are not particularly numerous. Since the aforementioned outlets are not available to them, they are relegated to sucking on a pacifier, rubbing a blanket across their cheeks, hugging a stuffed animal, or perhaps engaging in masturbation.

Which brings us to the issue of appropriateness. Not all outlets are considered appropriate, and some can even be unhealthy in the long run. For example, there is no doubt that alcohol and tobacco do the stress-reducing trick, but they also can cause a lot of collateral damage. And public sexual activity, whether masturbatory or participatory, tends to be frowned upon.

While pediatric dentists may have concerns about excessive thumb or pacifier sucking, most of the outlets chosen by young children tend to be reasonably harmless. But are they appropriate? I think most parents and bystanders are alarmed and/or embarrassed by a little one rubbing private parts in public. However, when it comes to pacifiers and security blankets, I don't think there are any universal standards, and the tolerance levels of individuals can vary widely.

Most mothers and fathers tend to be pretty tolerant. particularly if they are busy and stressed themselves. It is much easier to put up with the pacifier or security blanket than to deal with a stressed-out kid. Usually, parents become inclined to do something only when the disgusted gazes and disdainful comments of relatives, friends, and perfect strangers become impossible to avoid and start to make them doubt their performance as parents.

Regrettably, this often results in quick and drastic action involving criticism of the child and/or forced removal of the pacifier or security blanket. The child's attachment to the item then becomes a major "issue" and the source of continuous power struggles. This is not simply unpleasant, it is also unproductive as it generates considerably more stress for everyone.

Therefore, while it may be difficult to put up with the withering stares and searing statements, it is wise for parents to relax and be patient. Of course, they should consider taking steps to help reduce their child's stress levels themselves. Instead of working overtime to ensure that college tuition money will be in the bank, perhaps a little more time with their little one at this time might be a better investment. And instead of spending hours on the Internet planning a future family vacation, perhaps giving the little one a little more immediate attention might be more beneficial.

But parents can not and should not expect that they will be able to eliminate their child's stress entirely. What they can and should do is wait for the child to reach developmental levels where other stress-reducing alternatives become possible, and then encourage the child to pursue those. Keep in mind that things as simple as acknowledging your feelings and talking about them, getting some exercise by riding your bike around the block, reading a fascinating story, or even creating a delightful daydream, is largely beyond the capacity of a two or three-year-old.

Now once these outlets do become developmentally available, there is no guarantee a child will take advantage of them. And some kids remain steadfastly addicted to "infantile" activities throughout the preschool years. Again, this may be difficult to endure, but being too forceful typically does nothing more than make matters worse. So again, parents need to be a bit more patient and wait for another round of developmental progress.

Preschoolers are extremely egocentric. They are largely oblivious to and unconcerned about the attitudes and opinions of their peers. As they emerge from this period, things change, and they become aware of and sensitive to what other kids are thinking and saying about them. Therefore, at this point, attachment to their pacifier or security blanket may no longer be quite so attractive as it now generates more stress than it reduces. Consequently, they become considerably more inspired and inclined to seek out mid accept other more socially acceptable alternatives.

Listening to the tongue-clucking of your mother-in-law may be annoying at best and possibly despair and self-doubt-inducing at worst. On the other hand, noticing that there are no kids sucking pacifiers on the elementary school bus and that security blankets are rarely seen at sleep overs or summer camp should give you the courage and confidence to go easy on your child and yourself and let your child's development solve the problem in proper fashion and in due time.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc., "The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. His e-mail address is