Anxiety and Bleach

Question: My two-year-old son is getting ready to start child care, and my friends have told me he needs to stop using his pacifier because it won’t be allowed in the classroom. Is this true? He’s used to having it whenever he’s upset or goes to sleep, and it seems like his first few weeks in childcare will be stressful and he’ll need it more, not less.

Answer: Policies about children having pacifiers and “lovies” in classrooms vary from center to center, and are unfortunately not always child-centered. Many directors and teachers have concerns about the challenges that these items present in the face of sanitation rules they need to follow – for example, if a child with a pacifier in his mouth drops it and another child picks it up, the pacifier should be sanitized. Similarly, if a stuffed animal that a child has been holding with unwashed hands (or possibly chewed on) touches a sanitized surface, that surface would need to be re-sanitized.

Although providers have legitimate concerns about sanitation issues, many centers also understand the importance of comfort items like pacifiers and lovies in young children’s success at adjusting to being in a group care situation, and learning to self-regulate. Group care settings are stressful for young children, especially at the beginning of a school year when the teachers and other children are not yet familiar. It is the responsibility of caregivers to make this transition as smooth as possible, which means providing developmentally appropriate comfort and responsiveness based on a child’s individual needs. For some children, this would mean offering a pacifier or favorite stuffed animal or blanket until they are able to find other ways to soothe themselves.

Directors and teachers can be overly zealous in their focus on sanitation rules, sometimes due to an incomplete understanding of what the rules really are. “Caring for Our Children,” a document that outlines the rules and regulations for child care providers, addresses the procedures for children having pacifiers and lovies in care situations, and does not prohibit their use.  It does provide specific guidelines about washing and storage, as well as policies to ensure safe use. It is, of course, important to make every effort to keep a child care environment clean and free of possible contaminants. However, the emotional impact on an infant or toddler who is in a new, stressful situation and not allowed access to familiar self-soothing techniques also needs serious consideration. Caring for children’s emotional needs is not less important than attending to the cleanliness of the environment.

It will be important for your child’s well-being to find out what your specific center’s policies are around this issue, and see if it feels like a good fit based on your child’s temperament and needs. You can ask the director as well as the teachers what they do when children have trouble calming themselves down, and how they help children adjust to the classroom routine. You also can observe a class in action on a visit, and pay attention to how teachers react to children who are upset or anxious. Although your son won’t be able to use a pacifier forever, the weaning process goes best when it’s done gently and gradually, in a way that allows him to still feel safe and secure.