Problem-Solving with Catherine: Prolonged Pacifier Use in 4-year-old

pile of pacifiers ready for the pacifier fairyQuestion:

I have a 4-year-old who unfortunately has demonstrated significantly violent behavior with parents’ attempts to wean him. He has been significantly impacted on a structural level by prolonged use, negatively impacting both speech and feeding. My gut tells me it needs to be addressed by pediatric psychology.

Catherine’s Answer:

There are likely multiple factors contributing as this is atypical for an otherwise normally- developing four-year-old. What else do you know about his history and co-morbidities? That gestalt will likely offer some key insights that may be relevant.

It is possible the structural differences you observe are a consequence of prolonged pacifier use, but the structural differences may also be co-occurring. Meaning that the structural differences may be separate from the impact of a pacifier and unrelated in their etiology. Or they may indeed be solely due to prolonged pacifier use or exacerbated by it. Understanding any history or co-morbidities that are a part of his “bigger picture” would help peel that apart. As Barb so thoughtfully suggested, there may be reasons from a sensory motor perspective that pacifier use serves “a purpose” for him, meets a “need’ on a sensory level, as our kids at all ages do things for a reason. That may provoke the unbridled response reported when the “answer” to his “need” is taken away. Or it may be a learned behavioral response established in the child-parent relationship.

Without knowing his history and co-morbidities, it is challenging to problem-solve but with what I understand, there is a need for the expertise of pediatric SLP related to feeding and speech. Prolonged pacifier use can alter the oral-motor synergies/components that underpin chewing, swallowing and speech production. I’d suggest a consult by a pediatric OT skilled in sensory integration. The OT will also assess overall sensory motor control/processing, which may be the part of the underlying need that pacifier use is serving and determine if a PT consult is warranted.

At his age there may be a learned behavior and interaction pattern with parents, both related to pacifier use and beyond, that would benefit from the additional expertise of a pediatric psychologist.

Then the three professionals can together problem-solve and develop a plan of care with family involvement that addresses the “why” (postural, sensory-motor, oral-motor, “behavioral”) and a systematic approach to providing, in other ways, what his sensory system needs or “is craving” That may include SLP support for oral-sensory-motor treatment to normalize his oral-sensory system, and promote carryover of that intervention in ways that are more socially acceptable (and more developmentally supportive) than a pacifier, and OT for sensory integration that is perhaps more of a global need for this child than apparent on first glance.

I hope this is helpful.

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