I dreaded the day Stella would have to give up her pacifier. She was hard-core addicted to it. Whenever we were in the car, she whined, “My nuk, my nuk, I need my nuk!” And at bedtime, it was a must. When we popped it into her mouth, it was like a shot of valium.
She loved her nuk, but she was almost 3 years old; it was a little embarrassing, really. Most of the 3-year-olds – and many of the 2-year-olds – we knew had long given up their pacifiers, but not Stella, and Donny and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to wean her from it.
When she turned 2, we instituted The Nuk Rules: no nuks downstairs, no nuks when she was trying to talk. Mostly, she accepted these limitations, but occasionally she tried to sneak a nuk downstairs, or she refused to pull it out of her mouth as she garbled out a story in the car. And I thought that the final step – complete nuk removal – would be like sending her to detox. It would be like her undergoing heroin withdrawal.
Donny and I had a couple of ideas about how we were going to get Stella to give up her nuks. My stepbrother and his wife took their daughter, Siena, to a local toy store and allowed her to pick out any toy she wanted. Then she “paid” for the toy with her nuks. The cashier looked at my stepbrother and his wife as if they were crazy, but she took the nuks. And after that, it was as if Siena had never used a nuk; she was completely over them. Other friends went cold turkey with their son. The first few nights, he wailed and banged his head on the floor, but within a week, he seemed free of the addiction, and was, when I asked him about it, almost condescending: “I’m too old for a noo-noo,” he said, and looked at me as if he wanted to add “puh-lease.”
I’ve heard of other people allowing their children to “donate” their nuks to less-fortunate children or to pack them up for babies in need. I wasn’t sure which approach we were going to take. They all seemed like good ideas, but I was dreading it nonetheless.
For months before Stella’s 3rd birthday we talked about The Big Changes That Would Happen When She Turned 3: no more nuks, a big girl bed, and eventually no diapers at night. Then one day, a few weeks before her birthday, I asked her – as excitedly as I could – what would happen when she turned 3.
“When I turn 3,” she said, very seriously, “a princess is going to come to my house and eat all my nuks.”
“Really?” I asked, trying not laugh.
“Yes,” she said.
“The Nuk Princess?”
“Yup,” she said, nodding her head.
Hmmm… perfect. “And does she leave you a little present after she eats your nuks?” I was thinking along the lines of a tooth fairy.
“I think so,” she said, and there it was: the way to cure Stella of her nuk addiction. And she came up with it herself.
We talked about the princess a lot in the days leading up to her birthday. She had been playing doctor a lot, lining up her stuffed animals on the floor and taking their temperatures, so I went out and found her a doctor’s kit that the “princess” could give her. On the eve of her 3rd birthday, we gathered up all her nuks – we had an obscene number of them – and sat down to write the princess a note.
“What should the note say?” I asked her.
“That I’m a big girl.”
“Good idea,” I agreed, and wrote that down. “Should we thank her?”
“Yup,” she said, dropping the nuks into a plastic bag.
“Should we mention that you’d like a doctor’s kit, just in case she’s planning on leaving you a present?”
“Sure,” she said, handing me the bag full of nuks.
We taped the note to Stella’s bedroom door, and got her ready for bed. She still had one nuk – the one in her mouth – and we agreed that the princess would be able to find it there. Then she went to bed.
Donny threw the bag of nuks in the trash, burying them safely under orange peels and coffee grounds. I wrapped the doctor’s kit, sprinkled it with confetti and wrote Stella a note, which said how proud the “princess” was of her.
The next morning when Stella woke up, I snatched the last nuk from her bed and slipped it into my pocket, then I pointed out the present, which was just outside her door. Stella unwrapped it and was beside herself with excitement: she had her own thermometer and stethoscope!
Then she looked up at me. “Are all my nuks gone?” she asked.
“They are,” I said. “The princess ate them.”
Her eyes lit up. “I’ll go check.” She ran into her room and opened the drawer where we usually kept the spares. “They’re gone!”
And that was it. That day, there was no mention of nuks. In the car, she said she was sleepy, but she didn’t whine for her pacifier. That night, it took a little longer than usual for her to fall asleep, but she didn’t ask for her nuk. No heroin withdrawal. No detox. Donny and I were amazed. Had she simply been ready to give them up? Were we so concerned with how bad it was going to be that we overlooked the signs that she was actually ready to be done with the nuks?
Stella has now been nuk-free for almost two months, and it’s hard for me to imagine her ever having needed one. My daughter surprised me, and that is a wonderful thing. She may have been ready to give up her nuk long before we forced her to do it. Or it might have been exactly the right time. Regardless, the princess idea came from her, and it worked. This was a good reminder to me as a parent: allowing Stella to come up with her own solutions to problems sometimes works better than me imposing my solutions on her.
And the next time I worry about her adapting to a new situation or making a big transition, I will remember the Nuk Princess and remind myself never to underestimate my daughter; she may just surprise me.
Kate Hopper teaches Mother Words at the Loft Literary Center and has just finished her first book, Ready for Air, a memoir about Stella’s premature birth. Stella continues to surprise her.