But that's not a hard and fast rule. Many children use a pacifier well into their toddler and even preschool years. For these kids, the pacifier may serve as a so-called transitional object – that is, something that relieves stress and helps them adjust to new or challenging situations, like starting daycare or taking a long car ride. If your child takes great comfort from his pacifier, you can let him continue to use it until he develops other coping mechanisms. Just be aware that there are some reasons to consider banishing the binky sooner rather than later.
One, as mentioned above, is that pacifier use can interfere with speech development. Sucking on a pacifier locks a child's mouth in an unnatural position, making it more difficult for him to develop his tongue and lip muscles normally, says Patricia Hamaguchi, a speech-language pathologist from Cupertino, California, and author of Childhood, Speech, Language, and Listening Problems: What Every Parent Should Know. In some cases, using a pacifier frequently can cause the tongue to push forward between the teeth. This sets the stage for the development of a lisp when producing the s and z sounds.
Another reason to give up the pacifier is to help your child sleep on his own. If your child becomes dependent on a pacifier to fall asleep, you may have to get up and find it for him every time he wakes during the night. Third, if your child seems prone to ear infections, losing the pacifier might provide some relief. One study showed that children who didn't use pacifiers had 33 percent fewer middle ear infections.
Finally, in some cases, the pacifier can cause your child's upper teeth to tip forward toward the lip. That said, there's no evidence that pacifiers cause any permanent damage to baby teeth – they usually return to normal after a few pacifier-free months. (Still, it's a good idea to mention your child's pacifier use to the dentist so that she can check his teeth and jaw to make certain that everything is fine.) The bigger concern is permanent teeth, which usually start coming in around age 4 to 6. At that age, pacifier use can cause lasting dental problems, so your child should be off the binky by then.
When the time comes to wean your child from the pacifier, do it gradually. Many parents find it easiest to start by limiting daytime use, then work their way up to phasing it out of the nighttime routine. Starting a new bedtime ritual can help. If your child's not quite ready to give it up, consider switching to an infant pacifier for the time being, says Hamaguchi. It's smaller, softer, and less apt to impact your child's speech.