Should you give your baby a dummy?

By  | October 1, 2011

Sucking is a baby’s earliest reflex – ultrasound pictures of babies show that many are already practising on their thumbs even before they’re born. It’s easy to see why it’s so important – the ability to suckle for milk is vital to a baby’s survival, but does this mean thumbs up for the dummy?

When a dummy can help

There’s no doubt that during your baby’s first year a dummy can be a life-saver. At first the sucking urge can be so strong that some babies seem to want to spend the whole time at the breast or bottle… and when they’re taken off the breast, or away from the bottle, the howls begin. A crying baby makes it almost impossible to concentrate on anything else, and is enormously stressful. If you find yourself in this situation a lot of the time, a dummy may well preserve your sanity and calm your baby down. But if you’re breastfeeding, you need to ensure that this doesn’t affect your milk supply.

“If parents come to me and say their child is being fractious a lot of the time, I’d recommend using a dummy,” says William Yule, Professor of Applied Child Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. “It won’t harm the child, and it’s certainly worth a try. Most babies either take to them straight away or reject them from the start, in which case you have to think of something else to quell their cries.”

Main benefits:

  • A dummy can soothe your baby to sleep.
  • A dummy can keep your baby asleep – if disturbed at night, he’s likely to start sucking and may drift back into deeper sleep without opening his eyes.
  • Sucking gives a feeling a security, so a dummy can also be used to calm your baby if he is suddenly frightened or hurt. He’ll also take comfort from it in a new or difficult situation.
  • Dummies mean a baby is less likely to start thumb or finger-sucking, which can lead to dental problems later on.
  • Research shows that adults who had dummies as babies are less likely to take up smoking.
  • In June 2007 The Foundation for Study of Infant Deaths announced that settling your baby to sleep with a dummy – even for naps – can reduce the risk of cot death.

Jane Franklin always said she’d never give her child a dummy, but at around five months she was driven to distraction by daughter Daisy’s constant crying, and a friend bought her a dummy. “It quietened Daisy immediately, and I realised the reason I’d been holding off was simply that I didn’t like the idea of my child with a dummy in her mouth,” Jane says.

“It was ridiculous really because Daisy was clearly the sort of child who needed a lot of sucking time. Once she had a dummy not only was she happier, but I was happier and more positive about her, too. I never did like seeing her with a dummy in her mouth but it was definitely the right answer.”

Possible problems

Unfortunately, using a dummy can bring its problems, too. In the early weeks, your baby’s sucking stimulates your breasts to make exactly the right amount of milk for him. If your baby needs to suck in order to make more milk, and you give him a dummy instead, you could reduce the amount of milk you are making. This will mean that your baby will not be satisfied at the next feed and may become so fractious that you give him a dummy again, leading to a vicious circle of insufficient milk and a restless baby.

For this reason, it’s important to try to do without, or at least seriously limit, dummy use for the first six weeks. You may feel you’re being used ‘like a dummy’ at this stage – but bear in mind that this is a short-term problem, and that by the time he’s three or four months old, your breastfed baby will be able to get all the milk he needs with much shorter feeds than at present.

By that time, giving your baby a dummy occasionally won’t affect breastfeeding in the same way. However, babies still have occasional ‘sucky’ days, when they need a lot of time at the breast in order to up the amount of milk available because their needs have increased.

Speech difficulties

As your baby grows into a toddler it may become more difficult to separate him from his dummy. Jo Spencer’s daughter Tilly became very attached to her dummy, and was still using it when she started nursery at three. ”I managed to persuade her to leave it with me while she was at nursery, but as soon as she came out she would demand to have it and become inconsolable if I refused.”

Jo noticed that Tilly’s speech development seemed to be behind compared with other children, and Tilly was eventually referred to a speech therapist. ”I felt very guilty when the therapist told me that Tilly’s speech had probably been affected by her use of the dummy,” Jo says.

However, Tilly isn’t alone. When Manchester-based speech therapist Nadine Arditti researched children attending her clinic, she found that just over half of all dummy-users in her area had been referred for speech therapy. Nadine says regular use of a dummy can cause speech problems for a number of reasons. A baby with a dummy in his mouth has fewer opportunities to babble, which is the foundation of speech, and may not communicate with others as readily. An older baby’s ability to swallow may also be impaired, and this can result in difficulties with speech. Once he starts to speak, the dummy user may talk from the back of his mouth instead of the front, and get into the habit of saying ‘k’ instead of ‘t’, for example.

Nadine also points out that regular use of a dummy can lead to dental problems where the upper and lower front and back teeth may not meet properly, and the front teeth in particular may be at higher risk of decay. However, it’s worth knowing that regular thumb sucking can also lead to dental problems. Recent research shows that tooth decay levels are higher among children who suck their fingers rather than dummies, because sucking a dummy produces more saliva which helps combat plaque.

“I’m not against the use of dummies across the board,” says Nadine, “but I do think it’s very important that parents are given the information they need before reaching a decision on whether or not to give one to their child.”

Using a dummy sensibly

Speech therapist Nadine Arditti believes that it’s okay to resort to a dummy – providing you use it selectively and sensibly. Here are her guidelines for safe dummy use:

  1. Don’t use the dummy as an instant plug – try to identify the source of the problem first. Remember that if your baby is crying, it’s often because he needs something from you.
  2. Don’t get into a habit of using a dummy regularly. It’s fine to fall back on when all else fails, but it’s not a good idea to start off every day by popping the dummy into your baby’s mouth.
  3. See the dummy as a short-term life-saver, not a long-term habit or solution. Wean your baby off his dummy as soon as possible, certainly by 10 to 12 months.
  4. Never dip your child’s dummy into anything sweet – this can lead to tooth decay.
  5. If your baby is still using a dummy when he is starting to speak, discourage him from trying to talk with it in his mouth.

Tips to help your toddler kick the habit

Persuading your baby or child to live without his dummy can be hard work, but the following guidelines should help:

  • Make a clean break – most babies and toddlers will fret for only two or three days and nights, which, as long as you’re prepared for it, isn’t that bad .
  • Find a time when you’ve got some support, such as the weekend, before embarking on the abolish the dummy campaign.
  • An alternative is to go for gradual reduction – for example, start limiting the dummy to use in the house and then only at bedtime. This approach may seem less harsh, but obviously prolongs the agony – for both of you!
  • Get an older child to agree that giving up is the grown-up and sensible thing to do.
  • Time the giving up of the dummy with a birthday. One parent got her son to agree that he would put his dummy in the kitchen bin before opening his presents and he did! Another mother took her toddler to a local shop on her birthday, where she arranged for the dummy to be exchanged for a much-wanted toy.

by Clodagh Foelster