Back in my days as a new grad speech pathologist, I formed this idea that dummies were a terrible, ghastly device that would cause all sorts of issues in a baby’s development. When I was pregnant with my first baby, my feet were planted firmly in the anti-dummy camp as I proudly ticked the box on my pre-natal form to declare that I did not want my baby to be given a dummy in hospital. (Turns out they don’t have them anyway, so I’m not sure why it’s on there in the first place.)
Then came the out-of-this-world shock of having a new little baby to care for. As I stumbled around in the fog of sleep deprivation and trying to keep this new little person happy, my resolve weakened. When my baby boy was 2 weeks old, I was walking in the zombie like trance of a new parent in Target. I’m still not sure how that packet of dummies ended up in my basket… Perhaps I bumped something and it just happened to fall into my basket (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). When I got home, I put the dummy in a cupboard. “It’s there as a just-in-case, emergency measure”, I told myself.
Not more than a few hours later, I had an infant who seemed to think the world was ending. He was fed, burped, wrapped, warm, snug, cuddled, put down to sleep, but was wailing at volumes I’m sure could be heard throughout the neighbourhood…. and possibly Mars. My resolve crumbled. I grabbed a dummy, popped it in and… suck suck suck suck… sleep. Just like that. This little device had turned from abhorrent to magical in the space of 10 seconds.
So, just like that, I was a dummy convert. My position on dummies has changed immensely! However, the reasons for my anti-dummy mentality was grounded in some important concerns. Having a dummy for too long can affect your child’s speech and language development.
Babies love to babble. They love to experiment with sounds and this is a really important part of learning to talk. A baby who constantly has a dummy in his mouth may not experiment as much with babbling.
If baby does decide to babble and talk with the dummy, that has its own problems as well: talking with a dummy in the mouth can cause a child to get into a habit of talking with their tongue in a different position than usual talking and can result in a speech sound disorder. Prolonged dummy use (that is, using a dummy beyond 18 months) can certainly result in articulation difficulties, particularly with the sounds s,z,sh,ch,t,d,n.
Children who are allowed to walk around with dummies are in trouble if they slip over and do a face plant. At Liberty Speech Pathology, we once treated a child who had several teeth knocked out by falling over while sucking a dummy. Eeeek!
Many speech pathologists recommend that dummies be gone by 12 months of age. Personally, I recommend that dummies be gone before 6 months of age. I think I just heard a few gasps of horror… “What? Ditch the dummy before 6 months?” you say? Let me explain. A 12 month old has a good grasp of object permanence. She knows that something exists, even when she can’t see it. Her memory of objects is better than that of a 6 month old. A 12 month old will remember it for longer, recognise it as a desired object when she sees other babies with it, and will take a lot longer to forget that it existed. A 6 month old? You can expect a few rough nights, but after that it will be forgotten. In fact, it is around 4 months of age that a baby’s sucking reflex begins to diminish. After this, a baby doesn’t really need the dummy. Using it beyond this stage is when dummy dependence begins.
A dear friend of mine has a son (now a teenager) who was weaned off the dummy at age 1. When his parents took it away, they told him that he didn’t need it because he was a big boy. Making the connection between his object of desire and ‘big boy’, he spent the next several nights crying at night, calling woefully down the hallway for his “biiiiiiiig boooooy”.
That’s a really cute dummy story, but his parents remember how hard the habit was to break.
My firstborn was 6 months when we ditched the dummy. We planned it for a weekend and expected that it would be a tough few days. I stocked up with chocolate and all kinds of treats for my husband and I, knowing that we may need some goodies to get through (seriously, chocolate was decidedly necessary)! Sure enough, it was a tough first night. I spent a lot of time patting my little boy to comfort him and he eventually went to sleep, after a couple of hours. The next day, he didn’t have his first nap, so we resorted to a driving nap in the afternoon and he was out like a light. That night, he got to sleep a little faster. The third night, he protested briefly before giving up and sleeping through the whole night. From that night on, he slept through without needing a dummy.
When my baby girl came along, I had already decided to ditch it earlier. I settled on 4-5 months, to see if she’d be less attached at that age. Then came the infamous night that will go down in my memory as the “Fourteen Dummy Spits” night. Fourteen times, my little girl woke up crying because her dummy had fallen out. Fourteen times, I got up and replaced it. The next day, I decided that the dummy was going that night. She was not yet four months old, but that was that. We put her down with no dummy that night, and she protested for about half an hour. That’s it. And that was it for the whole time – it was as though she had forgotten about it altogether! Easiest dummy ditching ever.
So was it worth introducing it in the first place? Absolutely, for me. It helped me get through those first three months when babies are still sorting out their sleep patterns and have a strong sucking reflex. It gave my babies a predictable signal that it was time for sleeping. It gave them comfort when they woke up during the night. I also think that it helped with dropping night feeds as they had something to suck on. However, once they started waking through the night, its usefulness no longer compared to its down side.
So, if you do decide to use the dummy, here are my best tips for dummies with babies:
- Only use the dummy for sleeping. A baby should have his mouth free for babbling and exploring baby toys with his mouth when playing.
- Don’t put the dummy back in if it falls out, unless baby wakes and cries for it.
- Pair the dummy with patting – using a dummy is already creating a ‘sleep association’ that you will need to undo later. If you create another one at the same time, you can continue the patting one to make dummy-ditching less of a shock. Keep the rest of bedtime routines the same every night.
- When you ditch the dummy with a baby, the best way to do it is cold turkey. When your baby cries, go in and pat him on the shoulder. You could be doing this for an hour or more before he falls to sleep without it (especially if he’s a bit of a dummy addict by now). However, if you give in after an hour of crying, baby has learned that non-stop crying results in getting the dummy back. What do you think he will do next time you try and get rid of it? He’s learned that persevering in crying will eventually get him his reward. Trust me – it will be doubly hard to get rid of later if you’ve given in once before. To avoid temptation, throw them in the bin! Preferably on rubbish collection day – don’t put it past yourself to search in, under and behind every cupboard and drawer in the hope that you might find a stray dummy somewhere. Stay strong, it will pay off! (And arm yourself with yummy goodies to help you get through.)
- Plan to ditch the dummy on a weekend when you have some extra support. Tell yourself that it will take a few nights and be prepared to give yourself some rewards along the way (chocolate always makes things easier – for you, not the baby).
Now, while my recommendation is to ditch the dummy while baby is still little, there are plenty of parents who have chosen to keep the dummy for longer. If you’re ditching the dummy with a toddler or pre-schooler, you can ditch it cold turkey as well. Or, if you prefer a gentler method that will take longer, read on. These are strategies that we have accumulated at Liberty Speech Pathology for ditching the dummies with toddlers and pre-schoolers:
- Try cutting the end off the dummy or poking a hole in it. Give it to your child and say that it is broken. He may chuck it himself, as it has a different feel.
- If he is still happy to suck the snipped dummy, keep on snipping the end off, bit by bit. Watch for fraying ends – this can be a choking hazard. If you see any sign of fraying, cut it shorter. Cut it at least once a day. When it gets really short, he will probably ditch it himself as there is nothing left to really suck!
- Try tying the dummy to the end of your child’s bed. (Make it too short to actually take in to bed – otherwise it could be a strangulation hazard. Try a 10cm length.) In order to get the comfort from the dummy, it means having to leave the fun of the rest of the family and go into her room by herself. It also means it is difficult to play at the same time. She will likely get bored with dummy sucking and decide to use it less and less, until you can get rid of it altogether.
- The Dummy Fairy is a tried and tested method. Prep your child that the Dummy Fairy will be coming in a few days to take her dummy to the babies who need it, because she’s such a big girl now. Explain that the Dummy Fairy will leave a special little gift in return. Make a big deal of putting the dummy in a special box and make it look pretty, or even under the pillow. Then, when your child is asleep, replace it with a dollar (or something else that is special). Make sure you dispose of it somewhere that your child won’t find it!
- The Toy Store method is a personal favourite. Prep your child that you are going to go and buy a big boy present – something that only big boys who don’t have dummies can have. Go to a toy store and prep the person behind the counter. Pick a special toy, and when you take it to the counter, the shop person says “that will be $10 and one dummy”. Your child needs to relinquish the dummy himself to get his awesome new toy.
- Dip dummy in something that doesn’t taste nice to your little one – if it’s something that’s healthy as well, that’s an extra bonus! If you can find something unpleasant like cod liver oil, that’s perfect! Some people use vinegar or lemon juice. Be careful what you choose if using this method – you certainly don’t want to use something that has sugar in it that will rot little teeth. Check with your chemist what they have available for nail biting and finger sucking.
- Sticker charts are always a hit! Make a chart where your child can put a sticker on at the end of each day without the dummy. When she has stickers on a whole row of the chart, she gets a specified reward (eg a toy, an ice cream, etc).
- Have a special celebration! Have a party with family invited with some balloons, a special cake and a present to celebrate that your child is a big boy or girl and has finished with the dummy.
- Find something that your child would like to do (go to a particular playground; jump on a trampoline; have a pony ride, etc). Explain that it’s something that “only big boys and big girls get to do”. They are only a big boy/big girl when they give up the dummy.
- Some people have had a talk with their child about giving it to Father Christmas to give to the babies who need it. In exchange, Santa will leave a present. If you do this, you can mail it to the North Pole, or even prep Santa at the shopping centre and give it to him in person.
‘Forget’ the dummy on a family holiday. Holidays are great for breaking habits and providing opportunities for clean starts. The excitement of holidays and all of the extra fun treats and activities should be a great distraction, and by the time you go back home, the dependence will be broken.
If your child has had a dummy into toddlerhood or preschool years, it’s a good idea to go to a speech pathologist just to check on your child’s development. A speech pathologist will do an assessment to see whether the dummy has affected their speech or whether they are on track. If it has affected their speech, it is best to treat it sooner rather than later to reduce the impact as much as possible. Paediatric speech pathologists are lots of fun and we have lots of fun games and activities to make therapy enjoyable for kids.
For more information about speech pathology services, see www.libertyspeech.com.au
Liberty Gates, B. Speech Pathology, CPSP.
Reference: Shotts, L.L., McDaniel, D.M. & Neeley R.A. (2008). The impact of prolonged pacifier use on speech articulation. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 35(1), 72-75.
Disclaimer: The information on this website, Facebook posts and blog posts is provided for the purpose of education and promotion. It is not intended to replace personal Speech Pathology assessment and management nor medical or other professional care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have with your Speech Pathologist and managing Doctor.