The dummy dilemma: should you use a dummy or not?

by | Nov 9, 2018

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There’s a lot of controversy and confusion around whether babies should use dummies, and when. Paediatric sleep consultant Nicci Proome considers the issue from all angles.

People seem to have a lot to say about the use of a dummy. However, the for and against camps seem to be fairly evenly split.

There are many experts who believe that dummies are a great back-up option for soothing your baby, and can be phased out at different stages of development.

There is huge controversy as to when to introduce a dummy, with many advising against it, particularly when mothers are breastfeeding, as nipple confusion can occur. However, nipple confusion only occurs occasionally.

The question, therefore, is why shouldn’t a baby suck to self-soothe when it is already proven to be such a deep-rooted need from birth?

Examples are the need to suck after birth to increase the mother’s breast milk, and the need to practise sucking to strengthen the passive and active articulators to develop good feeding. Sucking on the hands begins as a documented milestone around 12 weeks, and chewing of the fingers when baby is ready to wean and teethe are also natural and normal. So why do we look at dummies as such a bad things?

As a professional, my suggestion is to allow it to occur, let the phases naturally happen and wean off when necessary.

When to introduce a dummy

A dummy can be introduced around day three, once milk production has been established and baby’s desire to suck has really kicked in.

It is very important to look at what you are using the dummy for. The dummy has been made to help baby self-soothe, and not to extend natural procedures like feeds or pushing baby’s overnight sleep more than is age-appropriate. Even worse is the use of a dummy to silence babies from natural noise making such as squealing, squawking and other natural noises they may be practising other than crying and being upset.

When to use the dummy

Primarily, a dummy should only really be used for a baby before sleep, as this is when the natural desire to suck kicks in quite strongly. The best outcome will be a baby who sucks for a few minutes before dropping off to sleep, and spits it out when falling into light sleep. However, a dummy can also be used when a baby is upset, scared or in need of additional emotional security.

Some babies are dream babies, taking to the dummy like a fish to water. It can be popped in while the baby is drowsy but awake, and baby naturally pops it out when asleep and never wakes for re-popping. This baby can also have their dummy popped in at bedtime and go all night without a niggle. This is an easy dummy baby, who can be weaned at any stage: 12 weeks, six months, a year – whenever your family is ready.

Stages of dummy retention

In some cases, babies will struggle to hold onto a dummy or use it intermittently. This is when I suggest dropping it at around 12 weeks – if a good suck has not been established. A great way to make sure that your baby rejects the dummy after 12 weeks is not to buy the bigger size up. The smaller dummy will become irritating to the growing baby and he will naturally lose the desire to suck on it.

If, however, your baby has a very strong suck-to-soothe association, then we can teach baby to hang onto the dummy by strengthening the suck reflex .

Insert the dummy and try tugging on it as if you were about to remove it, but not enough that baby lets go. This will teach him to suck harder as the dummy begins to fall out when he drifts off. Stay with him and do this for 10-15 minutes at the start of all naps over a couple of days. This will teach baby to naturally pull the dummy back into his mouth if it does start to fall out during sleep, without the help of a parent or caregiver.

If you decide to use the dummy past five or six months, then you can start to teach baby to use their dummy independently. Dummies are a great non-nutritive self-soothing tools, which can greatly enhance sleep quality and duration when used correctly.

If you are going to teach baby to use their dummy independently, I suggest investing in a sleepy tot or dummy holder, preferably a taglet with a dummy attachment, as it is large enough for baby’s small hands to manipulate.

Our babies get used to us popping their dummies back into their mouths as soon as he wakes, so for the first two to three days, when your baby wakes, pick up his dummy and place it in his hand, then guide his hand to his mouth and allow him to latch onto it.

For the next two to three days, hand him his dummy and allow him to independently place his dummy in his own mouth.

For the last three days, pat the cot mattress so that you draw his attention to the position of the dummy, allowing him the possibility of independently finding his dummy. A trick regarding dummy placement is to have the dummy attached to something large enough for his hands to easily find.

When to drop the dummy

The best time to drop the dummy is when it no longer serves its purpose, for example if the dummy becomes a toy and distracts sleep rather than helping with it, it becomes a 24-hour need and your child becomes obsessive about it, if your child starts biting through the teat or it affects the quality of their speech.

Weaning needs to be a structured process – you can’t expect a child to use their dummy for one nap and not for the next. This is extremely confusing. The best thing you can do is to clear your diary for three days while you establish a new settling ritual in place of the dummy. You are creating a dissociation between sleep and the dummy, ideally working on self-settling.

The introduction of a sleepy toy can come into play, or the use of a dummy go-go party. Either way, when and how the dummy is removed is completely up to the parent. What works for some parents, might not work for others.

Thumb and finger sucking

The only difference between thumb sucking and dummy sucking is that the thumb cannot be thrown away. It is important to remember that your baby/toddler is sucking for a reason, and it’s unhelpful to shout or shame your baby/toddler for sucking. If their sucking is appropriate it will naturally fall away as your child develops. Thumb sucking can last anything from a couple of months to a couple of years. If thumb sucking goes beyond two and a half years it might be a good idea to investigate why they need to suck so badly. It could be caused by a glitch in their sensory processing, or they might have heightened emotional needs for some reason or another.