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Should my baby use a dummy?

Baby with dummy

Carianne Vermeulen, Speech Therapist with Nubabi, tells us about the advantages, disadvantages and risks associated with dummy or pacifier use and how to get rid of the dummy at the appropriate age.

Dummies, soothers or pacifiers have their place in the first year. During this year of many firsts, your baby’s dummy might seem like magic - a quick and easy way to turn on the comfort and turn off the tears. There is no denying that dummies can work remarkably well at comforting and calming a baby. Especially if your baby has a strong need to suck, but has not yet developed the ability to put their own hands and fingers in their mouths. Beyond the soothing and nutritional use, sucking also provides babies with a wonderful way to explore and discover their worlds during their first year. But there are some potential drawbacks that you should be aware of if you continue to use a dummy beyond the age of one year, especially regarding your baby’s speech and language development.

If using a dummy is part of your plan, it is important that you understand the advantages, disadvantages and risks of dummy use, as well as the steps to wean your baby from the dummy when use is no longer age appropriate.

The possible benefits of using a dummy

  • Sucking is important, as it supports normal development and contributes to a baby’s sense of feeling content. In premature babies, it can also prepare the baby for feeding by mouth, as it helps improve the suck-swallow-breathe co-ordination.
  • A dummy might help soothe a fussy baby. Some babies are happiest when they are sucking on something.
  • It offers temporary distraction and can become handy during and after vaccinations, blood tests or other procedures that may cause distress.
  • If your baby has difficulty settling down to sleep, a dummy could assist.
  • Sucking on a dummy during flights might help ease discomfort. Babies cannot intentionally “open” their ears by swallowing or yawning to relieve ear pain caused by changes in air pressure.
  • Research has shown that a dummy might help reduce the risk of sudden death syndrome (SIDS).

There are however real concerns about the long-term use of dummies, especially in speech and language development. Of course, not all children who have dummies will develop speech and/or language difficulties, and conversely, many children who present with speech and/or language difficulties have never been exposed to a dummy. But, what is known is that dummies restrict the movement of the mouth. Freedom of mouth movement is necessary for your baby to develop good auditory discrimination skills, learn to produce speech sounds correctly and allow your baby to play with sounds and words. These are the essential skills in the development of a baby’s speech and language, and prolonged use of a dummy could have an impact on this development.

The potential negative effects of dummy use

  • If a dummy is introduced too early, it can prevent your baby from sucking well during breastfeeding and influence your ability to build up a good breastmilk supply, which in turn can lead to feeding problems.
  • Frequent dummy use increases the average number of annual ear infections. Recurrent ear infections before the age of 2 years significantly influence a baby’s ability to hear and process auditory information (i.e. information that they hear and use to learn to speak).
  • Excessive sucking when a baby suffers from nasal congestion can force mucus into the Eustachian tube, which can result in ear infections.
  • Prolonged dummy use can influence dental and palatal (i.e. roof of the mouth) development.
  • Continuously sucking on a dummy results in overdevelopment of the muscles at the front of the mouth, which in turn lead to a persistent tongue thrust pattern, further effecting placement of teeth and accurate speech production.
  • Drooling can occur as sucking causes more saliva production. This can also be caused by poor lip closure as frequent dummy use can hinder full development of the mouth muscles for drinking.
  • If a baby or toddler has a dummy in the mouth, they are less likely to babble and experiment with sounds. They will also be less likely to copy mouth postures and sounds adults make. Copying and playing with sounds are important in the development of speech production skills.
  • A toddler is more likely to choose to continue sucking and use pointing to obtain wants and needs, instead of attempting to say sounds or words. Other people also tend to think that a toddler is not going to talk when they have a dummy in the mouth, so assume there is no point talking to and engaging with the toddler. This results in the toddler having fewer opportunities to communicate with others.
  • If the toddler does try to talk with a dummy in the mouth, it may result in distorted speech production, because when they talk around the dummy air escapes over the sides of the tongue.
  • Dummies are often used for nurturing. If parents over rely on an alternative comforter like a dummy, the build-up of the baby’s trust in the parent is lessened and the parents are denied a chance to develop baby comforting skills.

Safety tips

Here are some guidelines to keep your baby safe during dummy use:

  • Give your baby a dummy when you lay them in the in the crib, but don’t reinsert the dummy once your baby is asleep.
  • Don’t secure your baby’s dummy with a cord that is longer than 22cm; it is a strangling hazard.
  • Get the right size dummy. Make sure it matches to your baby’s age and make sure it fits in the mouth.
  • Don’t let your baby share a dummy; you do not want your baby sharing germs with other babies. Also, wash your baby’s dummy in soap and hot water to keep it clean between uses.
  • Choose a dummy with ventilation holes in the shield to let air in.
  • Give the dummy to your baby as is. If you sweeten it, you can damage your baby’s teeth.

shutterstock 567049537

When to reduce dummy use

When is the best time to get rid of your baby’s dummy? According to Carianne, an appropriate time is as soon as your baby can hold a cup and is eating solid foods. This usually occurs around 12 to 18 months of age. As a toddler becomes more independent, they start to develop habits and exert their own demands. This makes the elimination of dependencies more difficult. The elimination of patterns before they become habits and/or demands will help your toddler’s overall development. They learn internally that it is the parent they can rely on to comfort them and provide them with a secure environment.

Tips on how to eliminate the dummy

  • Avoid putting your baby to bed with a dummy. Help your baby to find other means of comfort e.g. a special blanket or stuffed animal.
  • Don’t let your toddler walk around with a dummy. Teach your toddler to use the dummy only while sitting down or in stressful situations, like going to the doctor. Most toddlers are going to want to wander around, but if they are taught they must sit with their dummies, they may give them up on their own. Remember your toddler will love and respect you more if you provide boundaries for them.
  • Remove the dummy for short periods of time when your toddler is doing something enjoyable, for example playing or looking at books.
  • A ‘magic box’ for the dummy might help your little one keep the dummy just for those stressful moments when extra comfort is needed.
  • For older toddlers, gather the dummies up and take them to the toy store, where your toddler can “trade in” the dummies for a toy of choice. For most toddlers, it will be easier to deal with the dummy issue now rather than waiting until they become more attached and the habit becomes more ingrained.
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