Brain over Binky

     My four-year-old son gave up sucking his pacifiers a couple weeks ago. These days there is a lot of debate about when kids should give up their “binkies,” but my husband and I felt that – as long as it was limited to bedtime – it was fine until my son turned five.
    What made us have him quit a bit sooner was a mouth infection he suffered two weeks ago.  We have no way to know whether it was caused from his pacifiers or not, but we didn’t want to take the chance so we offered him a reward to give them up. He chose to trade his pacifiers for a “big-boy” airplane set and has been enjoying it, seemingly forgetting about his pacifiers.

     This is a kid who I could have never pictured without his pacifiers. When I think back to his baby years, I see him looking at me with his big blue eyes and sucking away on his pacifier.  We couldn’t leave the house without one, and each night when I checked on him sleeping before I went to bed, I’d make sure his pacifiers were close to him in case he woke up in the middle of the night.  He loved them, they were his favorite way to self-soothe.
     I never could have imagined it would be as easy as it was for him to give them up. He had a few nights where he slept less, but now, he acts like he never had them in the first place. We had prepared to give him lots of extra comfort during the initial “withdrawal” phase, but it turns out, he was fine without them. He stopped acting on his urges to suck his pacifier, and in turn, those urges seem to have gone away already. I can’t be absolutely sure, because I haven’t talked to him about the pacifiers for over a week because I don’t want him to turn his attention to any urges that may remain; but he hasn’t brought them up in conversation, which I think is pretty good evidence that the desire has gone away for the most part.    

     This experience got me thinking about how all people – young and old – naturally quit bad habits, and it had me drawing parallels between binky use and “adult” addictions. If only smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts, and binge eaters could model the example of young children who give up their “vices.” Why are adults often told they are diseased, “addicted,” or psychologically unwell because they have a bad habit? Why are they often excused from simply quitting? Was my son “addicted” to his binky? Even though there was not a chemically addicting substance involved, I think I could argue that he was indeed hooked on them. Did that mean he wasn’t capable of giving them up and moving on with his life? No. 

     The way I quit binge eating was indeed very similar to the way my son quit using his pacifiers. I simply stopped letting it be an option. I didn’t do it anymore, no matter what, and the urges quickly dissipated. It did take longer for my urges to binge to go away completely than it did for my son to lose his desire to suck his pacifiers; and this is possibly because a child’s brain is more plastic than an adult’s.  Nevertheless, my brain moved on and forgot it ever “needed” the habit.  
     My son wouldn’t have chosen to stop sucking his pacifiers on his own – at least not anytime in the near future. He needed my husband and I to tell him when it was time to stop, and take the pacifiers away. Likewise, the part of a binge eater that’s addicted (the lower brain) –the part that wants to continue the habit indefinitely and receive whatever pleasure and comfort it brings – needs a higher authority to say “It’s time to stop.”  In the case of adults, that higher authority is the highest functioning human brain (the prefrontal cortex), and it is capable of disregarding the urges for the bad habit. 

     If you believe binge eating does bring you comfort that you can’t live without, think of all the children who bravely hand over their binkies, sometimes even tying them to balloons and watching them fly away. I’m not trying to minimize the problem of adult addictions, but I am trying to offer a different perspective to hopefully help binge eaters realize quitting doesn’t have to be so daunting. I know there are people out there who have binged since childhood, and it’s what they believe they’ve always used to comfort themselves. Giving it up will certainly be a big step, but it’s well worth it, and it may not be as hard as you think. After a couple weeks binge-free, you may be surprised to realize your desire for the binges is quickly fading; you may realize you didn’t truly need the comfort of binge eating after all; you may realize you are okay without that crutch.      

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