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Childrearing

The Full Spectrum: Pacifiers Ruined My Life

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The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

My overtired, almost six-year-old son threw a mini-tantrum the other day. “I want my he he,” he burst out crying. What’s crazy is that “he he” is what he calls his pacifier – something we had taken away from him years ago. The fact that he not only remembers his pacifier but still pines for it all these years later is really sad. (On this particular day, I even started to cry myself.)

Both my kids were full-on pacifier addicts. There is really no other word other than addiction that could describe the desperation both of them felt for their “he he.” We had a least eight pacifiers going at any given time and I would sooner have left the house without my wallet than a pacifier.

In fact, the kids could barely make it through two and a half hours of nursery school each day because I sent them without their pacifiers. At nighttime, no matter how much sleep training we did, there was never a decent night’s sleep until the kids were old enough to reach for one of the many pacifiers we left scattered in their cribs.

Their love for this little piece of plastic was so strong that we couldn’t bring ourselves to take it away from them until they were each around four years old (which is late by most standards). It was truly the bane of my existence. And it still haunts me today.

What if the pacifier addiction is the monkey on my kids’ back for the rest of their lives?

During my daily “what if” indulgence around my kids’ challenges – for example, what if I didn’t give them enough variety of food when they were babies and that is why they are picky eaters? Or what if Ferberizing is the reason why my oldest never wants to sleep out? – I have lately started to focus on the pacifier as the cause of many of our problems.  It just doesn’t seem possible that four years of hardcore sucking on plastic wouldn’t have any type of behavioral or neurologic effect on a child.

Weaning my kids off the pacifier was like a nightmarish version of a drug detox. I had to rock my oldest son S. to sleep for three nights while he whined and whimpered. “I don’t feel comfortable,” he’d repeat over and over again. This same child was later diagnosed with ADHD and Aspergers and, although I can’t find any scientific link between pacifier use and spectrum disorders, I have to wonder: Is it possible this plastic demon had a role to play in his neurological malfunctions?  Whenever he was sucking on his pacifier he seemed to be in a dazed and confused state. Maybe this caused some kind of delay in neuron development? (Yes, I’m making stuff up here but has anyone actually studied this?)

My younger son A. still sucks on his T-shirt when he’s trying to concentrate or is bored, and he comes home from school with his shirt drenched on most days. Experts say it’s a way to self-soothe, which is the same pro-pacifier argument, but A. is going into first grade and even Freud says the “oral stage” should end by 21 months.

I’ve had to work really hard with both kids to find other ways for them to calm themselves. Luckily S. loves to read and if he’s feeling out of sorts you can always shove a book in his hand to get him refocused and quiet. Over time he’s learned to grab a book himself if he needs down time, and I’m more than happy with that habit.  But S. is eight years old and I still find him licking his fingers or sucking on his hand from time to time and no matter how hard I try to entice him to stop, he just can’t seem to (even when he really wants to). The need to suck is just that strong for him.

The pacifier could be the ultimate chicken or egg conundrum. Did my kids need to suck and therefore the pacifier was just an outlet or did their overuse of the pacifier create a need in them to suck?

My latest theory (I’ll always lean towards the argument that puts the blame on myself) is that if I hadn’t gone for the short-term fix with the pacifier, they would have gotten over the oral stage as toddlers and have found stronger places within themselves to feel comfortable and safe in the world. In my dream world, I never would have used the pacifier in the first place, and all the kids’ challenges would just melt away. Obviously this is a ridiculous fantasy but, at the very least, I would be saving on orthodontics.

(Photo: nuk-canada.com)

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