When it comes to separating a young child from a pacifier, blanket or other comfort item, child development experts say it's generally best to take the slow and steady approach.

How do you remove an adhesive bandage? Do you pull it off in one swift motion, or tug it gently and gradually from the skin?
Both methods have the same result; the difference is how you get there.

When it comes to separating a young child from a pacifier, blanket or other comfort item, child development experts say it's generally best to take the slow and steady approach.

Like that adhesive bandage, comfort items start out serving a useful purpose but eventually can become a hindrance. When a child starts using them, such items allow children to soothe themselves and face difficult or challenging situations. If left in place too long, the experts agree they can interfere with a child's physical, social and educational development.

"It's very developmentally appropriate to go through a stage, even a lengthy stage, where [children] have an attachment to an object," said Cami Winkelspecht, a licensed psychologist with Nationwide Children's Hospital Behavioral Health. "There's not necessarily any particular age or developmental level where you firmly have to get rid of it. The guiding principle should be related to impairment of functioning."

It's likely that a child is being held back by his or her attachment if, regardless of age, he or she can't let go of a blanket, pacifier or other object long enough to play with peers, or even allow the time for the item to be washed, Winkelspecht said. "There's not any reason I would be concerned about sleeping with, or being attached to, a particular object," she said. "The behavior in and of itself does not concern me. You just don't want it to be isolating for the child."

Becca Ucker, director of infant and toddler programs at the Columbus Montessori Education Center, agrees that parents shouldn't worry about rushing to break their child's comfort item habit. "What harm is it to still carry a blanket when they are 2? I think when it starts to interrupt your child's ability to perform tasks or participate, then you need to look at things," Ucker said. "We would never tell a parent to pull it all at once. It has to be a gradual thing."

Knowing your child and setting appropriate limits on where, when and how long a comfort item can be used is the best place to start, said Winkelspecht and Ucker. Parents can start, they said, by limiting items to use in the house and car, slowly reducing it to just naps or nighttime.

"Everything is always a baby step when you are starting a separation," said Ucker, who often encourages children to buckle comfort items into their car seats when they get to school. "It's letting them know that wherever it is going, it is safe," she said.

Entering a formal preschool environment for the first time often gives parents a natural place to start the separation process. At Blacklick Elementary School preschool in Gahanna, 15-year veteran teacher Sue Sheffer said children are welcome to bring comfort items to school. But, she said, they are to remain in a child's backpack, inside a cubby, at all times.

"We've found that their interaction with other kids in the classroom pushes them away from some of these things and helps them to advance," Sheffer said. "They are branching out and learning they can let that go and they can still be okay. Sometimes they need that little push to mature a little bit and let go of those things."

Pacifiers, Sheffer said, are strictly prohibited at her school. "We just tell them we have big boys and big girls here at school and we don't use them," she said. "I've never had any issues with that. [The kids] don't understand what's behind it, but the main impact on them is that nobody else is doing it," she continued. "A lot of times, they even forget about [their comfort items] because they are so busy. And then, I think, they surprise themselves because they realize they didn't need them."

There are times, Winkelspecht said, when parents need help making the break. "It's so dependent on the particular child, Winkelspecht said. "Some 2- or 3-year-olds can really reason with you, some cannot. But when [parents] can't enforce some type of limits, or it is impairing the child, it might be helpful to consult your pediatrician."


The perils of pacifiers and thumb-sucking

Breaking the pacifier or thumb-sucking habit in young children can be particularly difficult and poses unique challenges. But area dentists and speech therapists agree, it's one of the most important things parents can do to help ensure proper mouth and teeth development.

Dentist Robert Lowe said he advises his patients to eliminate thumb-sucking and pacifier use by age 2 or 3. "Those things can definitely affect the way teeth erupt and they also can affect the shape of the palette," Lowe said. "That's why we usually get them to stop doing it before the adult teeth start coming in. And the sooner, the better."

Because pacifiers are pliable, they tend to cause less damage than thumb-sucking, Lowe said. But, he added, both can cause an open bite, where the teeth don't come together in the front of the mouth and orthodontics are required to correct the problem.

Lynn Vottero, a speech and language pathologist with Northrup & Associates, said she likes to have her patients give up pacifiers completely by the age of 3. Habitual thumb-sucking is a tougher nut to crack, Vottero said, and for those children, age 5 is the upper limit. By then they have the cognitive ability to understand why they need to break the habit, she said. "It can have an impact on speech sounds, especially 'S' and 'Z', " Vottero said. "To properly produce those sounds, the tongue is behind the teeth. With a child who sucks his or her thumb, the tongue is used to thrusting forward and many times you end up with what we call a lisp."

Lowe said his own daughters, now 13 and 16, gave up pacifiers "cold turkey." "Once they dropped the pacifier and lost it, they never got another one," he said. "We thought for sure it was going to be a nightmare. But it actually turned out much easier than I thought."
"It's much tougher with the thumb-suckers," Lowe added. In extreme cases, he said, an orthodontist can place an appliance in a child's mouth that makes thumb-sucking difficult or uncomfortable.

Vottero said she has seen limited results when parents try to get children to kick the habit all at once. "We do habit reduction, where we are weaning a child away from the habit in a controlled way," she said. "It has got to be positive. It can't be punitive. That's again why the child has to be on board. If it comes across as nagging, it's just not going to be very productive."

Whatever method parents choose, the process can take weeks or months and requires parents and children to make a commitment, Vottero said. "Parents know their child best," she said. "The parent has to be ready too, because this can be hard. There could be sleepless nights and there could be crying, so it really has to be an agreement between the parent and child."


Miriam L. Segaloff lives in Gahanna with her husband and daughter. She has more than 17 years of experience in writing, editing and communications.