The dummy debate

Dummy, pacifier, soother, binky, whatever you call it. The dummy is one of the (oh so many) things I have beaten myself up about continuously over the past six years.

I was a thumb sucker until I was nine years of age. Nine. I have the buck-teeth to prove it (don’t worry, it’s not like I look like a horse or anything). My mother tried disgusting nail varnish – the sort usually used on nail biters. She tried cajoling me, bribing me. I think at one point she even resorted to threats to get me to stop sucking my thumb. Even the development of a little sore did not deter me (god I was gross!). I share this information with you not because I am particularly proud of it, but I think it is important for you to understand my starting point for thinking about dummies. It is important context for what follows.

I first popped a dummy in my daughter’s mouth when she was one week old.

Fundamentally I am not against dummies. But initially it looked odd. Even now I remember how odd it looked and that uncomfortable feeling that I was doing something “wrong”. At the same time, my daughter seemed to enjoy it, she had horrendous wind and this seemed to help, and I knew it was not harmful to her. Besides, I watched a good friend spend a large part of her day with her finger stuck in her child’s mouth because she did not want to use a dummy, and I knew that I could not handle that (she later tried a dummy and told me it freed up an extra two hours of her day!). Other friends suggested I should just let her find her thumb. The way I see it – you can take away a dummy, you cannot take away a thumb (or at least not without social services having something to say about it).

Every time I saw her thumb creep towards her mouth I popped in the dummy. I also made sure I followed Gina Ford’s advice (controversial I know, but she worked for me) to take the dummy out just before the baby fell asleep so she did not become reliant on it.

I tried different types of dummy. I was adamant that, if she was going to have a dummy, it should be orthodontic. But she did not like them. She preferred the cherry dummies. I worried that it would affect her teeth. It was at this point that my mother pointed out that my daughter was only two weeks old and had no teeth, so stressing about an orthodontic dummy was a bit daft. She had a point.

At six months (again in line with Gina Ford’s advice) I weaned her off it. However, at around 10 months when she started teething, I reintroduced it. I tried various teething rings and of course we had several Sophies (the fact we still have one feels like a massive achievement!) but she dropped them, or the size was wrong for her mouth. They just did not work for her. So I reintroduced the dummy at home (she still did not have it at nursery) and found it helped her enormously with teething, especially at night. And her getting a good night’s sleep was my priority.

As much as I knew it made sense for her to have the dummy, I also hated her having the dummy.

I particularly hated taking pictures of her when she had the dummy in. Photos made a permanent record of the fact that we used a dummy. I remember a slightly disastrous trip to Norfolk when her molars were coming through and she was generally pretty miserable. We went on a boat trip to see the seals. She was so grumpy we ended up giving her the dummy. For a long time I hated that the pictures all had her with her dummy in her mouth. Obviously, over time I gained some perspective and I know that it simply does not matter.

Why then do I feel the need to justify (or worse, apologise for) my use of a dummy? Unfortunately, what I know does not necessarily translate into what I feel. And in spite of what I know I still feel the need to justify my actions.

The two main concerns about using dummies are that it could cause nipple confusion, and therefore interfere with breastfeeding, and that the use of dummy could impede speech development. This is useful information for parents when making their parenting choices, but neither of these concerns make a clear case in my view for the level of societal prejudice I feel exists.

In fact in many other European and Scandinavian countries dummies are very much accepted. In Denmark children often have dummies until they are three or four. They even have special pacifier trees that the children hang their dummies on when they give them up. It is akin to a rite of passage for them. The dummies are left behind tied up with ribbons with little notes attached from the children. There are quite a few pacifier trees in Copenhagen. In other regions, Father Christmas takes them away.

Meanwhile, in the UK the most recent advice from the NHS on cot death (SIDS) indicates that the use of a dummy may actually reduce the risk of cot death (though not all experts agree they should be promoted). So what is the problem?

In the end, when my daughter was around 18 months I took the dummy away again. I simply removed the dummies from their usual places and let her explore to see they were gone. And she was fine.

When my second child was born I was keen for him to have a dummy, having seen how much it had helped my daughter with the teething process. But he was having none of it. My son was simply not interested. He was not a “sucky” baby. So in the end, after the first few weeks he just did not have one.

When my third was born I ordered a new batch of cherry dummies. He like my daughter was a sucky baby and took to it immediately. I was fine with that. Now he is nearly 16 months old and I am back worrying about his dummy use. He does not have it at nursery. At all. He naps at nursery very happily without it. He only has it at home.

So once again I find myself battling with myself about the rights and wrongs of using a dummy.
I feel judged when out and about with my baby with a dummy in his mouth. But most of all I now worry that we are using it more for our own ease than for his benefit. I have caught myself at times giving him a dummy when really I should have been trying to work out what he wanted, or have spent more time distracting him with something else. Part of it is definitely about making my life easier. And that is tough to admit.

But again the wise words of my own mother ring in my ears – happy baby, happy mummy. The point is, my children will be happier and better off if I am not a frazzled wreck having been driven demented by a screaming baby, when a dummy will happily soothe them. It seems to me that it is all about balance and getting the right balance. Using a dummy as an aid rather than a replacement to parenting.

Over the next few months my plan is to start using the dummy in a more considered way, rather than as the default. I hope this will assuage my guilt. But frankly I doubt it.

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