I honestly can't recall how my son Anthony's Binky habit got so out of control. He was an angelic baby, the easiest of my three. Maybe it was because he was always "plugged." His 2-year-old sister was giving me a run for my money, and I did whatever it took to get through the day.
I knew I was in trouble, though, when Anthony was 2 and we made an emergency trip to the dentist after he fell off his sister's bike. He'd taken a bite out of the driveway, and a front tooth had turned black. The dentist took one look at him and said, "I'm a lot more worried about that pacifier he's so fond of." "How did you know he has a pacifier?" I asked, since of course he didn't have one in his mouth at the time. The dentist explained, "One front tooth is shorter than the other," which is a telltale sign of prolonged pacifier use.
Clearly, the pacifier would have to go. But I was feeling guilty about taking away a source of comfort, especially after the fall. I overlooked his habit for several months. Then when Anthony got his heart set on one of those scooters all the other kids had, we made a deal: Toss the nipple and get a new set of wheels. Once the novelty of the scooter wore off (after about 24 hours), he asked for the Binky again. And again. But I held fast to our agreement and, surprisingly, after about a week Anthony moved on.
Whether it's sucking on a pacifier or bottle too much, needing to be rocked to sleep all the time, or requiring silence to snooze, babies can easily fall into some bad habits. And while those habits are seductive for moms because (let's face it) they buy us some peace and quiet, we might later come to regret them. The detrimental effects can range from pricey dental work to obesity -- and chronic sleep deprivation for you.
Of course, by the time you realize your baby's "addicted," it's twice as traumatic to wean him off his habit, says Maureen O'Brien, Ph.D., a mom of twins and coauthor of the book series Watch Me Grow. But it can be done. Five baby habits to try to avoid from the get-go, and how to break them even if you're already in deep:
Rocking your baby until she falls asleep
If ever there was a picture of maternal bliss, it's that of mom and baby snuggling in a rocking chair. But consistently swaying your child until she's sound asleep means that every time she wakes up later, you're back on duty. "I nurse my six-month-old, Haley, in a rocker in her room, and if she's still squirmy, I cradle her and hum, which lulls her to sleep. Then I put her in the crib," says Hilary Dunning of San Diego. "When she wakes up, generally around 3 a.m., we need to do it all over again."
Even though Dunning says she's mustered the patience to persevere with the routine, her daughter isn't learning an important skill every child should master: how to soothe herself back to slumber.
"At first, I loved rocking my daughter, Marissa, to sleep," says mom of four Cathryn Tobin, M.D., a pediatrician, a midwife, and the author of The Parent's Problem Solver. "By nine months, though, I was desperate for her to learn to doze off on her own. I was in my final year of residency, and so tired I could barely think straight, but I was afraid to let her cry. The amazing thing is that once I gave her a chance, she didn't fuss. She just played quietly, and then fell asleep. I guess I underestimated her."
Of course, chucking your child's rocking routine isn't always so easy. So now Dr. Tobin counsels parents to get their babies into the habit of drifting off on their own early. You can start in the first month or two by putting your newborn in her crib when you know her tummy's full and she's about due for a nap -- usually every two hours or so in the early months and after about three hours of awake time later in the first year. Rocking is okay, but when her eyelids start to flutter, you'll want to stop and put her down. If your baby's prone to dozing off while feeding -- whether from a bottle or your breast -- you might try what Susan Zepko of Dumfries, Virginia, did. "My daughter, Kiera, would fall asleep after just five minutes of breastfeeding, so we'd make sure to rouse her before putting her down. We didn't want to use nursing as a prop to get her to go to bed," says Zepko. "She's fifteen months old now -- and a wonderful sleeper."
If you miss that early opportunity, expect protests from your older baby. But it's not too late. You can ease her into the new program by laying her down in her crib when she's tired but still awake, then going in at frequent intervals -- every five minutes or so -- to comfort her with calming words and a gentle rub.
Using food to soothe
Feeding your baby is one of the most natural, nurturing things you do, and pediatricians agree that it should be done on demand. It's hard to imagine, then, that there could be a catch-22. But overfeeding can begin in infancy because many moms insert a nipple -- theirs or one attached to a bottle -- whenever their baby cries. While a newborn truly needs to eat every two hours or so, an older baby's life no longer revolves around meals.
With an epidemic number of obese children in this country, pediatricians are concerned that children are developing an eat-for-comfort habit as babies. "We see lots of overweight kids drinking too much milk because bottles are so soothing," says Dr. Tobin.
Sonya Dodson, a mom of three in Triangle, Virginia, is trying hard not to fall into the trap with Luke, 7 months, that she was in with her two older kids, now 7 and 4. "My son would drink several bottles before bed, but, looking back, I know he wasn't that hungry. And my daughter would drink all day long too," says Dodson of her bottle-obsessed kids. "Now if Luke's just had a drink and starts to fuss again, I try other avenues to settle him, like a toy or a change of scenery."
A sure bet when you're uncertain whether your older baby really is hungry: Strap her in her high chair and give her something healthy, like fruit or crackers and a small amount to drink in a cup. If fuel is what she needs, she'll gobble it up, then clamor to get back out and explore.
Nice and Quiet
Keeping the house too quiet
Whenever my mother comes to visit and Charlie, my youngest, is napping or down for the night, every other sentence out of her mouth is "Shhhh! The baby's asleep!" Grandmas and first-time moms are especially susceptible to the notion that infants need silence. But in reality, there's nothing noisier than the beating, pumping, swishing environment of the womb, so babies don't come into the world expecting quiet. If we then get them used to a too-silent setting, we set ourselves up for trouble trying to maintain it. "A newborn's brain shuts down when he's tired and overstimulated, which means he'll sleep virtually anywhere," says O'Brien.
I can attest to that: At 2 months, Anthony slept for a solid three hours in his infant seat on a table in the middle of my brother-in-law's raucous 40th birthday party, and Charlie, who's 18 months, naps through his older siblings' playdates in our too-crowded house.
In fact, if there's nothing for a baby to tune out, he won't learn how to calm himself by shutting his eyes, sucking his thumb, and cuddling his blankie -- skills that come in mighty handy in the middle of the night when he needs to get back to sleep and you're not around. So stick to your normal routine while he's in dreamland. Walk around, flush the toilet, do the laundry.
If you've already fallen into the quiet habit, you can subtly start to introduce some noise. The hum of a fan, an air conditioner, or a dishwasher, or even a tape of waves crashing, is relaxing and similar to the sound of the womb. Once your baby's used to such white noise, you can move on to a TV or stereo on low. The next thing you know, you'll be brave enough to vacuum.
Quit Cold Turkey
Becoming dependent on a pacifier
For many moms, pacifiers are a godsend, providing much-needed relief during cranky spells. But use them too often or too long and they're one of the toughest habits to break. Plus, they may cause problems with teeth alignment that could require braces or other dental work down the line, as I realized too late with Anthony. Pacifiers can, on occasion, also cause speech delays. "My daughter, Jaclyn, loved her pacifier, and my husband and I did too," says Scottsdale, Arizona, mom Jodi Amendola. "She rarely ever cried, since she was able to soothe herself with it. But when she reached fifteen months and wasn't talking as much as we had hoped, we asked our pediatrician about it and decided to just throw them all out one night. It was traumatic, and hard for her to sleep without it for a few days. But after a week, she was okay. And at twenty-one months, she's rattling off sentences."
While Amendola had her daughter quit cold turkey, other moms offer to swap Binkies for a toy or some other treasure. Toddlers who are capable of a bit of negotiation are also often willing to make a trade on their birthday or have a handoff with Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny: Leave the pacifiers under the pillow and get goodies in return! You could also use the pregnancy of a friend or relative as an excuse to ask your child if she'd be nice enough to give her pacifiers away to the new baby.
Regardless of how you do it, the trick is to do it early and completely. A baby's need for nonnutritive sucking decreases by 6 months, and watching for that window of opportunity makes the process easier. Your child may even start to spit out her pacifier at this point. Just quit offering it if you see this cue.
Overresponding to your child
Memo to nervous moms everywhere: Turn down those baby monitors! Electronic surveillance may be helpful in the early months, when you're worried about SIDS and working hard to build your baby's emotional security. But once you're in the second half of the first year, it's a good idea to wean both yourself and your child from a quick response to every whimper.
By now your baby knows you're going to meet his needs, and he should be learning to soothe himself more often. "Not every cry is an emergency," says Dr. Tobin. "As your baby gets bigger, tears are more likely to stem from anger or frustration." Give him a few minutes to try to work through his emotions on his own.
"My second child, who's now six and a half, always wanted to be held," says Deborah Niedbala, a parent educator at Children's Hospital of Michigan, in Detroit, and a mom of three. "But you're doing your child a disservice if you always carry him around, because he's not getting enough opportunity to explore. I started to plan time when I'd sit nearby but not pick him up."
You can do this as early as 2 or 3 months by putting your infant in a bouncy seat or laying him under a hanging gym or mobile for a few minutes at a stretch. He'll learn how to entertain himself, and you'll get some time to do what you need to do.
I've learned to finish little tasks like folding laundry, writing an e-mail, and checking homework before retrieving Charlie from his crib after a nap or responding to his whines when he wants out of the play yard. And nine times out of ten he will quickly find something else to amuse himself with, which buys me a few more precious minutes.
Babies are notoriously noisy sleepers, so if you rush in too soon or too often at night or during naptime, you might end up waking your child yourself. Beware of prematurely rousing your little one and you could save yourself some sleepless nights. "My husband's job was to bring my daughter to me at night to nurse, and like a good new dad, he was snatching her out of bed practically every time she rolled over," recalls Dr. Tobin. "But when she was about nine months old, I went on a ten-day trip with her and left the monitor and my husband home. By the time we returned, she was sleeping through the night."
Stephanie Wood's last feature for Parenting was "'Can We Take Her Back Now?'" in the April issue.