Q&A: pacifier weaning too abruptly and sleeping in big boy bed

Peggy writes:

"I read a some of your advice on pacifier weaning. The problem for us is that we had to pull my son off his paci a little too abruptly. He is 2 1/2 years old and has only switched to a big boy bed in the last 2 months (we are expecting a little girl in a few months). I'd say he's willingly been using the pacifier for naps and nighttime only for the last 8 months without needing it or asking for it otherwise. However, we had to pull him off of it recently because he had taken to chewing on them and and we were afraid the nipple would break off and choke him. When he got down to his last pacifier, we tried to explain to him that he needed to stop chewing on it otherwise it'll be broken and we'll have to throw it away. Well, that time came within a few days. It has been terrible since all his pacifiers are gone. He keeps having these fits in the middle of the night where he is looking for the paci, but he is so out of it, we can't comfort him enough to calm him down. He eventually falls asleep on his own. This might happen 1-3 times a night. Also, because he is in the big boy bed and isn't fully adjusted to it yet, he comes running into our bed most nights and we can't get enough sleep (which I really need with a newborn on the way!) I thought it would be better after a few days, but it's been over a week.

In a related matter, do you have any suggestions for getting our son to lay down in his bed and stay there on his own? Right now, he only goes to bed if both my husband and I lie down with him until he goes to sleep. We read a few books and turn off the light (same routine every night), but he won't let us leave. We tried using a gate in his doorway but that was too traumatic for both him and me. We thought we had introduced the notion of a big boy bed as best we could in the first place. He got to help pick it out, and he was really excited about it. He doesn't seem to want to be back in the crib at all, so I don't think that is the issue."

Before I really start in on any of the specifics of this question, I want to tell you not to underestimate the effect of having another baby on the way. Even if it's a few months off, your son is likely to be feeling anxious about it since it's such an unknown. He can't verbalize those feelings (even if he understands them, which he doesn't), so they're going to come out in other areas of his life, including comfort objects, sleep, and behavior. If you can keep that in mind, it'll help you get through this stuff more easily because you'll at least know why some of this is happening and that it's a time-delineated problem.

I think you're stuck with the pacifier problem until it works itself out, which could be a few weeks. In hindsight, you maybe could have saved yourself a little bit of trouble by having some kind of ritual to get rid of the pacifiers (giving them away to "someone who needs them" or burying them in the backyard or sending them to the Pacifer Fairy, or just some kind of ritual to mark the passage). But I don't think there's really any good way to get rid of pacifiers without any trauma at all, and you clearly had no choice but to get rid of them ASAP, so all this Monday-morning quarterbacking on my part is just hot air.

The only thing I can think of that might help is to talk about how he doesn't use pacifiers anymore during the day at least few times every day, to rehearse it with him so it'll stick in his head in the middle of the night. And make sure you talk about it right before bed, too, so it's still in there. It might click at a certain point and he won't be looking for one in the middle of the night if he remembers that he doesn't have them anymore. And even if it doesn't help him have an easier night, at least it'll give you something concrete to do to try to alleviate things until he just moves on on his own.

It sounds like your only problem with staying in his bed is going to bed the first time, correct? I think that's really common at that age, to want someone there while they fall asleep. It's a normal developmental thing, and doesn't mean you'll have to do it forever. Honestly, to me the biggest problem with the scenario is that he wants both of you there. One of you is reasonable, but two is excessive.

Personally, I'd vote for your husband to be the one to get him to bed, because when your daughter gets here you'll be occupied with her, and your son will most likely regress for the first few months and need someone to help him get to sleep (even if he starts going to sleep completely on his own this week). I guess there could be an argument made that it should be you for now and then when your daughter arrives it should switch to your husband, but that's up to you two to figure out.

Whichever one of you is not the one getting him to sleep should arrange to be out of the house at bedtime for a few nights. If you're not there, then you can't be roped into putting him to sleep. (I'm assuming that there are nights occasionally when either you or your husband aren't home at bedtime, so this won't be a completely new thing for your son. I can't emphasize enough the importance of having something even once a month that lets you get out at night to do something adult.) Although this is going to be annoying, I'd also recommend having your husband lie down on the floor next to him, instead of in his bed, because that makes it easier just to roll up and walk out, since it won't shake the bed and risk waking your son. The first night or two might be a little rough for your husband (depending on how tenacious your son is*) but then they should settle into a good pattern, and you can start being home at bedtime again.

I think you guys should be prepared to have to be in there with him to drift off to sleep until a few months after the baby comes. (I'm being realistic here. It's not my goal to blow smoke up anyone's skirts by saying it'll take a week at this particular point in his life. If the baby wasn't on the way, it might only be a few weeks, but this is a fragile time. And who knows? Your son might start going to bed just fine on his own after a day or two anyway.) When you feel like he could be loosening up and not really needing your husband anymore, your husband can use the tried-and-true method of saying he has to leave to go to the bathroom but will be back. Then gradually he stays away longer and longer, to see how long it takes your son to fall asleep once he's out of the room. One day your son will forget to ask for him to stay, and everything will have clicked into place without anyone realizing it.

Good luck. This is such a tough time because of the transitions happening, but it will get easier in a lot of ways once the baby comes.

* Hey, tenacious is a really really good quality in a person. It bodes really well for later success. It's just a little inconvenient when you're trying to change that toddler person's sleep patterns.