The dummy debate: should parents use a pacifier to soothe their baby?

We ask parents and experts about their experiences with the divisive item

Dummies, or – as those stateside call them – pacifiers, are often a bit like Marmite: parents either love them or they don’t want anything to do with them. Babies, too, will either take to them like a yellow rubber duck to bath water, while others will immediately spit them out.

Often, however, as with many parenting dilemmas, needs trump wants, and mums and dads may find themselves frantically scrambling for something suckable to help soothe their wailing offspring, no matter how hard they try not to.

This is what happened to Amy Vogelaar, mother-of-two and co-founder of Love Parenting UAE. The lactation consultant, antenatal and parent educator had planned to avoid them, but about three days after her first baby was born, she found herself scouring the supermarket shelves.

"The baby sucked a lot," she tells The National. "Of course, the baby never liked the dummy and we ended up giving her our finger to suck as another option. And when we stopped doing that, she took up sucking her own thumb."

Her second baby, on the other hand, loved the dummy, and by that point Vogelaar and her husband were happy to give it to her. “I must say, the dummy was a lot easier to get rid of than the thumb, ultimately.”

Jemma Beedie, mum to Sylvie, 2, had a similar experience when her daughter was about 5 or 6 weeks old. “We were having an awful day,” she recalls. “Sylvie hadn’t stopped crying for hours, only wanted to breastfeed, and there wasn’t any other adult around to give me 10 minutes to have a break ... when your stress levels rise, it means your baby gets more upset, too.”

So, in a desperate bid to soothe her child, Beedie reached for a novelty dummy given to her by a friend. “She stopped crying, soothed immediately. And the sight of it was so funny that it instantly cheered me up.

“My husband and I had intended to do a bit of research before making a decision about the dummy, but the reality was that it was a tool available when I needed it.”

The benefits of using a dummy or pacifier

There are a number of benefits to reaching for the dummy. Vogelaar says, first and foremost, it gives breastfeeding mothers another option for babies who want to suck a lot. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with comfort sucking at the breast, as long as baby has spent enough time eating effectively at the breast, as well.

“But, let’s be honest, as modern-day mothers, it’s hard to meet all the sucking needs of our babies, and most of us find it helps to get a break if baby uses a dummy, or daddy’s finger, or baby’s own finger.”

This also works for those bottle-feeding, she says. “They need to comfort suck, too.”

Another potential benefit that’s being more widely talked about is evidence – found in several published medical studies – that shows babies who fall asleep while sucking a dummy may have more protection from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or cot death.

“Of course, falling asleep while sucking at the breast will also do this, and is probably how babies were ‘designed’ to fall asleep and be kept safe,” Vogelaar says. “The dummy is just an artificial breast substitute.”

For Lauren Eels, a history and politics teacher and mum to twins Effie and Ruairi, who were born at 29 weeks, there was another advantage. “They started using them from 32 weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit to teach them to suck in preparation for weaning off tube feeding,” she explains. “They had tiny dummies.”

Eels found it taught them the suck and swallow reflex, and the pair slept better while using them. “Also, Ruairi had awful reflux and the sucking helped with his nausea.”

'I didn't want to have to take it away'

Despite the benefits, some people are not convinced. Sophie Webb, mum to five-month-old Sienna, was never keen on the idea of using a dummy.

“I used to not like seeing children with them in their mouth when they were a lot older and I always felt it stopped children speaking as much when they were toddlers,” she explains. “Also, my sister’s little boy never had one, and my mum never used one with both me and my sister, so I just did the same.”

While Sienna does not use a dummy now, she was given one in the NICU, after she was born four weeks premature at a hospital in Dubai. “I couldn’t believe it,” Webb says. The nurses had decided to give the baby something to soothe her, as Webb recovered from a caesarean section.

“When coming home from hospital, we did speak about whether or not we would continue it, but she never was a huge fan. We never forced it as we didn’t want to be in a situation where we had to take it away from her or go through nights when you have to keep putting it in, which, I think, from speaking to other mums, can be hundreds of times a night.”

The disadvantages to dummy use

Having to replace the dummy constantly in the middle of the night is certainly one of the disadvantages of dummy use, according to parents we spoke to. But there are others, too.

Vogelaar outlines a few. “First of all, a newborn who is happily sucking away on a dummy may not be getting enough time at the breast, and can suffer from not getting enough breast milk, skin-to-skin time and all the benefits of both,” the breastfeeding specialist explains.

We informed our daughter that in three days the fairy was coming to take all the dummies to a new baby who needed them

“All that time spent sucking on the dummy can also affect baby’s latch and sucking patterns on the breast, making it harder to get breastfeeding well established, reducing the stimulation of mother’s milk supply, and possibly making breastfeeding more painful for mum and less effective for baby.”

To avoid all this, she advises seeing a lactation consultant before deciding whether to offer a dummy.

There are also concerns about how dummy use affects the way baby’s jaw and hard palate, or the roof of their mouth, develops, Vogelaar says. “[It could] affect the way the teeth come in, how the baby’s bite develops and also how baby’s face looks as he or she grows.”

Lactation consultants, dentists, osteopaths and speech and occupational therapists across the world worry about the negative effects of dummy use on children’s jaws, nursing, chewing, speech and even airway development and breathing practices, says Vogelaar. “These effects are likely to increase the duration of dummy use and the more it is used each day.”

How to take a dummy away from your baby

So, if you do find yourself in a situation where you have already reached for the dummy, how do you now stop?

One method is to use the “dummy fairy”. This is something Eels and Vogelaar used.

“We informed our daughter that in three days, the fairy was coming to take all the dummies to a new baby who needed them,” says Vogelaar. “We then counted down the days and helped her gather up all the dummies in the house. She woke up to a special gift from the fairy, which worked pretty well for her.”

It wasn’t her first attempt to remove the dummy, though. “Previously I had tried trimming the end off and then gradually cutting more and more off each day or week. But my very determined daughter was not discouraged at all, and happily sucked on the stump of the dummy, whistling away as the air sucked through it.”

Eels did it in stages, and let her twins use them until they were three-and-a-half years old. “At 1, we stopped allowing them in the day and restricted it in the night as I realised it was keeping them from babbling,” she explains.

They then used the dummy fairy method once the twins were old enough to understand and, she says, “they loved the whole experience and lost no sleep over saying goodbye to them”.

“Ultimately, the benefit was great sleep. I kept them on clips so they didn’t get lost in their cots and they could find them easily.”

Another method is to go cold turkey. This is what Dan Bennett, father to Tilly, 4, did. “We used one until about four months, when we got her to self-soothe at night and sleep. We found the dummy would fall out while she was asleep and cause her to wake up.”

It’s not that Bennett, nor his wife, Gemma, regret using one, but they’re glad they didn’t use one for longer.

“Gem did the sleep training over one weekend,” he explains. “She basically let Tilly cry it out but went in to soothe her, starting by letting her cry for 15 minutes, then gradually increasing the length of time between going in.” They paired the sleep training with taking away the dummy, finding that it took Tilly about three days to settle into the new routine, but after that she slept much better.

For Beedie, it was a simple process. “My daughter self-weaned from the dummy at around 11 months and I was gutted as it meant I always had to feed her back to sleep instead of putting the dummy back in.”

Whatever method you use, make sure you avoid doing it during a stressful developmental leap, when starting nursery, moving or when mum goes back to work, Vogelaar advises parents. “Though it is not always possible to avoid stressful times, it may avoid making things even harder,” she says.

“Regardless of how [or when] you remove the dummy, be prepared with lots of love and compassion and cuddles for a child who may be experiencing loss, sadness and stress with this change. And trust that your child will get through it and will be fine without it.”

'Every baby is different'

While there are clear pros and cons, your choice on whether to use the dummy or not depends solely on you and your family. “Every baby is different and every mum should do what is best for their baby,” says Webb.

“Always think about the fact that it will have to be taken away eventually and that’s just another thing to add to the hundreds of other things us mums and dads have to worry about.”

If you are thinking about using it, then, Vogelaar says, the medical advice is to only use it for the first four to five months and to remove it from the baby’s mouth or bed once baby is asleep. “And it ideally should only be used for falling to sleep, not for walking around during the day.”

At the end of the day, says Beedie, life with a newborn is hard, so “why not use every tool available to make it easier on yourself?”. Just make sure you always carry spares and dummy clips are a lifesaver, she says.

Besides, if they don’t use the dummy, they’ll end up using their thumb anyway, says Vogelaar. “And there’s little we can do about that.”