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Babies are typically inquisitive about the environment around them. Naturally, you may expect your child to become attached to their pacifier.
Not all autistic babies like pacifiers, but those who tend to enjoy them usually become very attached to them. It’s common for an autistic child to hold onto their pacifier for years, using it as a “stimming” or self-stimulation method. This stimming helps calm and comfort them.
Children on and off the spectrum enjoy and can become severely attached to their pacifiers. Read on to learn more about the relationship autistic babies have with their pacifiers and if it’s something you should be concerned about.
Pacifiers and Infants
Pacifiers go by many names around the world:
- Paci (short for pacifier)
Whatever you call it, a pacifier is a way to provide an infant with a sense of comfort. Babies have a natural tendency to suck on things, with some even sucking their thumbs in the womb. Some children are rarely spotted without a thumb in their mouth for the first year of their life.
A pacifier is a healthy replacement for a finger for a few reasons.
- The thumb is more harmful to the developing shape of your child’s bite
- A binky can be removed when it comes time to wean the child off of it
- You can remove the binky when it comes time to feed
For many babies, a pacifier offers a sense of comfort. It can satisfy their natural sucking reflex, keeping them calm in between meals and helping them to fall asleep at nap time.
Autistic Babies and Their Pacifiers
Not all autistic babies like pacifiers. Some children may not take a pacifier at all, no matter how many times you offer it. Others can grow overly attached to theirs, taking it with them everywhere, including into the bedroom at night.
Many children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) become near obsessed with their pacifier or bottle, holding them close and using them at all hours of the day. There is a large divide in the parenting community of whether or not you should let your autistic child have their pacifier as they grow up.
It is generally recommended that a child be weaned off of their pacifier between two and four years of age; however, children with ASD may have a different relationship with their binky than the average child.
Should You Wean Your Autistic Child Off of Their Pacifier?
As mentioned, this question has become a target of hot debate. There are generally three main reasons why people think that you should wean your child off a pacifier.
It Could Damage Their Teeth
Studies show that prolonged use of a pacifier can significantly damage the shape of your child’s bite and the roof of their mouth, creating a permanently high, narrow channel. This damage isn’t guaranteed, though, and your child could safely continue to use a pacifier past the age of four, with proper observation.
Some children don’t use their pacifiers as vigorously as others, choosing instead to hold the object in their mouth instead of actively sucking on it. This method is much less damaging.
It Is Not Age Appropriate
A difficult argument for any parent to hear is that something they’re doing isn’t “age-appropriate” for their child. It’s important to remember that age appropriateness is largely a social construct– something that only exists because we agree it exists.
Many things that aren’t deemed appropriate for one’s age are done so not because of objective truth but because of a widespread subjective opinion. Judgmental minds may not welcome a child over one year using a pacifier, but that is a matter of opinion, not of scientific fact.
The bottom line for the parent of any child, but especially the parent of an autistic child, is that you need to find what works for you and your family and disregard others’ unbiased judgments.
It May Further Hamper Communication
A legitimate argument for weaning your child off of their pacifier is that dependency on it may hamper their already-challenged communication skills. Autistic children are prone to communication difficulties, finding it hard to connect with other people.
Not only can a pacifier discourage a child from engaging altogether, children who try to talk “around” their pacifier can quickly develop a speech impediment. For an autistic child, this adds an extra hurdle to their connection with other people, which is already challenging enough.
Reasons to Let Your Child Keep Their Pacifier
While the reasons above make it seem like a pacifier only bears bad news for your autistic child, there are reasons you may want to let them keep it.
It’s a Healthy Stimming Habit
Stimming is a common sign of autism. It is a compulsive habit that helps children with ASD calm themselves, release overwhelming emotions, or become comfortable in an unfamiliar situation. Stimming often takes shape in a repeated physical movement like flapping hands, rocking back and forth, jumping or twirling, and yes, chewing objects.
By allowing your child to have their pacifier, you may be satisfying a very core need for a stim or self-stimulation. Instead of your child chewing on their sleeve, their hands, or any random object, a pacifier provides a mouth-safe toy that can fulfill this urge.
It Can Calm Them
Even if chewing isn’t one of your child’s stims, the presence of their favorite binky can help to calm them in an uncomfortable situation. You may be worried that the pacifier will hinder their ability to communicate. Still, any parent of a child with ASD will tell you that an autistic child in the middle of a tantrum is impossible to communicate with.
You have a better chance of communicating with your child once they are calm, and with their pacifier, than when they are freaking out without it.
They May Naturally Outgrow It Anyway
There is a very good chance that your child will outgrow their pacifier eventually, even if it takes much longer than the average infant. While most kids ditch their binkies around the age of one, a child with autism could use it until they are near puberty–or even past it.
If your child is communicating, and you’ve checked with their physician to ensure that their oral health is not being affected, then there’s no reason not to let your child carry on with a habit that they enjoy.
What You Can Do to Help You Decide
Ultimately, you will have to decide what route you want to take with your autistic child and their pacifier. There are a few things you can do to help you make this decision.
Keep an open dialogue with your child’s physician. Their doctor is in the best position to provide you with the knowledge and resources to help guide your decision. As long as your doctor says there are no adverse physical effects, your child should be able to keep their soother.
Taking your child to a developmental psychologist will undoubtedly become part of your routine. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), among other tactics, will help to determine what behaviors are healthy for your child and which need to be curbed.
Tip: Check in with a reputable health insurance provider to ask for any additional treatments that are covered. You may have more options than you even realize!
Autistic babies don’t always like pacifiers, but when they do, they love them. Children with ASD are prone to having self-stimulation habits: repetitive movements that help to calm them. This habit often takes the form of oral fixation, or the need to chew or suck on something.
A soother can be a very healthy way to channel this stimming need, and as long as you are consulting your child’s physician along the way, you have nothing to worry about.