Dummy use in babies and toddlers can be a very hot topic. Most parents know how much a dummy can help soothe a baby who won’t settle especially in those early months. I used them with all four of my kids. But like many other issues new parents face, there are strong views expressed by family, friends and health care practitioners on whether or not we should give them to babies. So what is true?
Dummies can be great to relieve stress and soothe babies. Sucking is the main way babies soothe themselves until they are older and can find other ways. We also know that there’s a reduced risk of sudden infant death (SIDS) when babies use a dummy during sleeps and naps, although using one is not a substitute for other SIDS precautions such as putting a baby to sleep on their back. If your child is unwell and is in hospital their dummy may provide them great comfort during their treatment or for procedures.
So what are the downsides of using a dummy?
You should be aware that dummy use has been associated with:
- Feeding problems: In some babies, if dummies are introduced before a baby has established breastfeeding they can affect sucking during breastfeeding or the mother’s milk supply. This does not always happen and using the dummy when your baby is sucking well at the breast is usually fine.
- Behavioural sleep problems: Some babies wake several times a night or even every sleep cycle (approximately every 40 minutes) looking for their dummy to fall back to sleep, leaving many parents exhausted. From eight months of age, most babies can learn to put their own dummy in, but not all learn to do so.
- Dental problems: If dummy sucking continues beyond three years and up until your child starts to lose their baby teeth, there can be long-term problems with the upper teeth being pushed forward or behind the lower teeth. This can change the way the teeth meet when the child bites. It may also cause your child to be more of a mouth breather, which can cause more dribbling, or if it is dipped in sweet liquids or foods it may cause tooth decay.
- Speech and language problems: When used beyond 12 months dummies have been linked to speech problems in some children as it limits the opportunities that a child can practice their talking if it is always in their mouth. It may also restrict the full range of tongue movements to make all the speech sounds.
- Middle ear infections: These are more common in kids who use dummies.
So how long should babies use a dummy for?
There is no right answer. Dummies can be good to help babies self-settle for the first four or five months, but it is generally recommended that parents try to wean their baby’s dummy between six and 12 months. However, lots of children use them to soothe, reassure and calm themselves well into their second year, but the earlier you are able to remove it, the less dependent your child will be. By 18 months to two years they can be very attached to it and are usually using it for longer periods outside of their sleep time.
So here are some good tips to try and get rid of the dummy if you are ready to do so:
- The first step is to start restricting its use. Try to limit dummy use to sleep and nap-time. For toddlers, try and predict when they will want it. If they want it when they are bored, distract them, and if it’s when they are upset, try to give them the words, time and space to express their feelings. Books are also great for this. Make sure you give them lots of kisses and cuddles.
- Once your child is coping for longer periods without the dummy, set a time and date to take away the dummy.
- For babies, teach them to self-settle on their own. Start during the day during nap-time and then do it at night. You will probably have at least three very rough nights, but then your baby should start to settle more happily on her own.
- Once they are older and learning to speak, you can explain that they are now a big boy or girl and that they don’t need a dummy. Some parents use the dummy fairy who comes at night and takes the dummy away from under their pillow and replaces it with a new toy. The new toy can be a doll or bear and every time the toddler feels like she needs the dummy she can give the toy a cuddle. It may take a few weeks for them to stop asking for the dummy, but hang in there.
- Some parents use books to talk through giving up the dummy (see below). This can be a lovely way to talk about taking the big step and to give them the confidence that they can do it too. A star chart can also be used to encourage dummy-free days if the child is three or older.
- It is not a good idea to take away a dummy when there are big events taking place such as a move to a new house or a new baby, or when your child is sick.
Using a dummy is fine, but be mindful that there are some downsides if your child uses it well beyond the first year. Dummy-weaning can be stressful for both you and your child, no matter what method you use.
So, the key is to be firm as well as being very patient and supportive during the early days without their dummy. Soon your baby or toddler will forget all about the dummy, and be perfectly happy without it!
- I Want My Dummy by Tony Ross: a hilarious my little princess book
- Florrie the Dummy Fairy by Anthony Crosbie: Florrie transforms Elliott’s dummy into his very own twinkling star
- The last noo-noo by Jill Murphy: Marlon the little monster can give up his dummy when he is ready to after all
Please note: Dr Margie is no longer monitoring questions on this blog. If you are concerned about your child, please contact your GP or child health nurse for advice.