A number of parents in our program are concerned about their child's binkie habit. Some of the parents want our help in trying to wean their child away from their comfort items. How do we explain to parents why binkies, blankies, and bottles are important to their child? While we support children having comfort items, do you have any suggestions for organizing, and what do you do if a parent insists on breaking a child's habit?
Infants and toddlers often become attached to objects such as pacifiers, blankets, and bottles, especially when they are in some type of child care program. Long hours of separation from the comfort of their parents and their home can leave some infants and toddlers fearful and anxious. The most critical factor in a child's life is the attachment he makes to other human beings; the ability to bond will affect him for his lifetime. A child may begin to form close bonds with caregivers but even in the best program, there is usually a high rate of turnover for teachers. Imagine the sense of loss and abandonment some children must feel when such critical aspects of their lives keep changing. It is for these reasons that children often become attached to their binkies, blankies, and bottles.
In addition to fulfilling their need to bond, children will use comfort items for sucking. Humans are born with the urge to suck; sucking fills an emotional need. Most pediatricians, however, recommend weaning babies at one year of age, and dentists warn of "baby bottle tooth decay," a condition that occurs when babies drink milk from bottles while falling asleep. Although these are solid recommendations, think about the times a crying infant or toddler must wait to be held, spoken to, or have his basic emotional and physical needs met while in your care. Society allows adults to relieve their stress by sipping coffee, tea, sodas, and alcohol or by smoking a cigarette. How can we deny a child the source of comfort that comes from holding a favorite blanket or sucking on a pacifier or bottle?
As a caregiver, with time at a premium, you may resist dealing with binkies, blankies, and bottles, but there are simple solutions to some of the practical problems. Mark each binkie with the child's name and hang them on hooks where you can reach them. Keep a small basin of mild bleach water on a high shelf so you can rinse a binkie after use. Fill nursing bottles with warm water at naptime. During the day, assign each child a bottle of a different style and color, label it with his name and keep the bottles in a self-service cooler with blue ice. Put blankets in the child's cubby when they not being snuggled.
Every program's handbook should include a child-centered statement of policy regarding items that bring comfort. If a parent demands the withholding of such items, a strong director will talk to the parents about the emotional needs of their child, point out the program's policy, and act as an advocate for the child. If there is an authentic medical need to withhold a pacifier or a bottle, we offer the following strategies: 1) give a great deal of extra physical and emotional comfort to the child when he is under stress (e.g., holding, talking, rocking, and singing); and 2) find ways to distract the child by helping him find a toy or other substitute to play with.
When should we ask children to give up these treasured objects? Most children outgrow them between age two and three. If a child still depends on them at age three, begin a slow transition. I remember a little girl, Kim, who was approaching age three. She still wanted her bottle, but she was moving from the toddler program into the preschool. During the month before she turned three, we gradually diluted her bottle with water, explaining that after her birthday she would only have a cup. Every morning I cuddled with her, comforting and distracting her. By her birthday, she was ready to give up her bottle and enter a new program.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.