Dummies, pacifiers, binkies, soothers: whatever you call them, they’re a hot topic of conversation at mothers’ groups and on parenting forums. But are they hygienic? Do they cause dental problems? And will your baby get addicted? Read on to learn more about how and why dummies work, when they are useful and when to give them up for good.
A Brief History of the Dummy
The dummy as you know it took a few centuries to develop. Before silicon teats were even possible, a German doctor mentioned the dummy in a book on raising children that he published in the 15th century. Some years later, German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer completed a painting of the Madonna and child. It showed a baby holding onto a cloth-style dummy. At the time, it was popular to give babies and children cloth rags tied into balls and filled with meat, lard, or even alcohol to calm them down or amuse them. The tradition made its way to the United States in the 19th century. Here, the rags were filled with whisky, sugar or honey and called “sugar tits”.
Meanwhile, in England, a farmer’s wife gave her baby a corn cob to gnaw on while her nipple was sore, and found that the baby relaxed and went to sleep. Teething aids for babies were then made from coral, bone or ivory, much like the modern day dog’s bone. They remained popular from the 1600’s right through until the 19th century.
The English also manufactured elastic gummy rings made from rubber and topped feeding bottles with rubber teats. During this time, many parents in the upper classes gave their babies silver spoons to chew on as a teething aid. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”, you might now get an idea of how it evolved.
The dummy as you know it now appeared at the turn of the 20th century. The American department store Sears Roebuck published a catalogue in 1902 that featured a rubber teething ring. It was inspired by the English elastic gummy rings and fitted with a soft or hard nipple. The modern-day dummy was born.
Why It Works
Infants are born with a strong instinct to suck, so that once they find their mother’s nipple or a feeding bottle, they know how to get the nutrients they need immediately. The urge to suck does more than just feed a baby: it also gets their intestines working and helps to empty their digestive tract.
More than anything, sucking on something gives babies much-needed comfort and security. If a distressed baby takes a dummy and calms down, mothers with sore nipples get a break and might even get to enjoy a few hours of sleep.
Good Things About Dummies
Dummies Might Reduce the Risk of SIDS
The connection is not yet scientifically certain, but there might be a link between using a dummy at bedtime and a reduction in the rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It could be because using a dummy creates extra space around baby’s nose and mouth, letting them take in more oxygen. Or it might be because babies sleep more lightly when using a dummy, and can, therefore, wake themselves up more easily if they are in danger of suffocating. There are plenty of differing opinions on why, but most experts agree that there is a link and that using a dummy might help prevent SIDS.
Comfort and Routine
Popping a dummy into your baby’s mouth shortly before they fall asleep can also become a pleasant part of your bedtime routine. And babies love routine. Sometimes, sucking on a dummy is the only thing that will calm down a distressed baby! In this way, dummies provide frazzled parents with comfort too, as well as peace and quiet.
You Are in Control
As the parent, you get to decide whether to give your baby a dummy, for how long they suck on it, and when enough is enough. It’s certainly easier for parents to take away a dummy than to prevent babies from sucking on their hands, fingers and thumbs.
Bad Things About Using Dummies
Problems with Teeth and Oral Hygiene
Some dental experts think that dummies change the structure of babies’ mouths and can cause an overbite. It is accepted that this only happens with prolonged use. Prolonged use means that your baby uses a dummy for more than two or three years, or is still sucking on a dummy when he’s four or older.
Other experts warn that dummies can transmit bacteria from the mouth to the Eustachian tubes. This might result in more frequent ear infections. Additionally, new bacteria could be introduced if dummies are shared between babies, if they’re not cleaned regularly, or if parents put the dummies in their own mouths before giving it back to the child.
The verdict is still out on whether dummies can cause speech problems. The dental and ear problems associated with using dummies might also affect speech. But most experts would agree that any problems with speech would result from prolonged use. For example, if your child has a dummy in his mouth constantly, he has less time to practice his speech and mimicry skills, and these are very important for speech development.
A team of psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has suggested a link between repeated dummy usage and stunted emotional maturity, though it is only really noticeable in boys. They claim that using a dummy prevents babies from mimicking facial expressions and copying body language. When these necessary empathy skills are underdeveloped, this can lead to a lack of emotional maturity later in life. Again, these problems are only likely to have an effect if a baby uses a dummy for a very extended period of time.
Some people claim that using a dummy at the same time that a baby is learning to breastfeed will lead to problems latching onto the nipple. There is no conclusive evidence to prove this, but if you want to be careful, wait until your baby has figured out how to breastfeed and is doing it well and consistently, and then introduce a dummy.
It is true that your baby might struggle to fall asleep or soothe herself without the dummy if she is used to having it with her at all times. Breaking this habit can be hard later down the track, but not impossible. It can also be hard to find a dummy in a dark room in the middle of the night when your child is crying out for it!
If you decide you want to give your baby a dummy, try to introduce it as part of the bedtime routine only. Avoid offering your child a dummy while they are awake and playing. If the majority of your baby’s day is dummy-free, this will reduce the chance that she will experience any of the problems mentioned above. And night-time use can be a comforting way to make going to sleep easier for everyone.
Ten Ways to Break the Habit
If you’ve decided it’s time to eliminate the dummy from your baby’s life, you can:
- take it away while she’s too little to protest
- puncture it (safely) so that it’s not satisfying to suck on anymore
- read a book on the subject with your child (try “I Want My Dummy” by Tony Ross or “Bea Gives Up Her Dummy” by Jenny Album)
- have a special farewell ceremony
- trade it in for a present at Christmas time
- reduce usage gently or save it just for special occasions (e.g. at the doctor, on a plane)
- go cold turkey
- Give it to a newborn baby as a present. Explain that dummies are for babies and you are a big boy/girl now. (This is great advice that I learned from Susie at SleepBabyLove.com)
- if there’s no rush, just wait to see if your baby loses interest on his own
Dummy Weaning No-Gos
Avoid taking it away when significant changes or emotional upheavals are happening at home, e.g. just after a new baby has arrived, while you’re moving house, or when mum is going back to work. Save the dummy weaning process for when your baby is healthy. If your child is still using a dummy when most kids have left it behind, don’t let anyone make fun of your child for still needing it. Being teased or mocked won’t help the process, it will just make your child feel insecure and need it even more.
What Worked For You?
Did your baby love the dummy or reject it outright? How did you break the habit? We’d love to hear from you!