The deal with dummies
Our expert helps you decide if it's a good idea to use with your child.
By Jan Murray
Child-health consultant / April 05 2023
Non-nutritive sucking (sucking without gaining milk) is a natural reflex most babies are born with.
You may even see your unborn bubba sucking his finger during an antenatal ultrasound. After birth, your newborn may continue to self-soothe by sucking a digit or you can introduce a dummy for him to suck.
Some parents love using dummies, others hate them. Some littlies never suck a dummy, others suck one for a short time while others never want to give them up. But whether you like the idea of using a dummy or not, sucking helps soothe and comfort your bub for months and sometimes years.
When you allow your little one to calm by sucking, it will reduce the amount he cries (and you cry). If, in the early months, dummy sucking reduces the length of time your bub cries, don’t discourage him, as life is much calmer and more enjoyable for everyone if he is allowed to suck. There is also evidence that a premmie baby who sucks a dummy while being tube fed hastens the development of the natural sucking reflex. Helping bub suck independently sooner shortens his hospital stay and gets him home earlier. If your newborn feeds from a bottle, he often needs to suck for longer than the milk lasts. Giving hima dummy to suck after milk is finished can help him feel more settled after his feed. He’ll usually spit the dummy out when he’s had enough, so when he does spit it out, avoid the temptation to put it back in. That goes for getting bub off to sleep with a dummy in the early months, too. If he’s calm when he spits it out, leave it out and let him settle to sleep without it – only put it back in if he needs support to calm again.
Sucking releases pressure in the Eustachian tube connected to the ears and can reduce ear pain when taking off and landing during plane travel. Sucking also provides a soothing distraction during procedures such as immunisations and blood tests. As an added benefit, SIDS researchers claim sucking a dummy lowers the risk of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) because babies remain in an alert state of sleep with open breathing passages. However, this is strong evidence only, and not conclusive enough to actively encourage dummy use as a SIDS risk-reduction strategy.
When to start
Newborns who feed with a bottle can start sucking a dummy earlier than those who are breastfed. If you are breastfeeding, avoid using a dummy until your bub has learnt to attach and feed well from the breast, at around three to six weeks of age. Never force your bub to suck a dummy or dip it in sweeteners such as glycerine or honey and check it regularly for cracks, splits, and holes to reduce the risk of accidental choking.
Have several of the same types of dummy on hand as they tend to be regularly misplaced and soiled. If bub is reliant on his dummy to settle, suddenly not having it can be very distressing for him – and you!
Around three months of age, the sucking reflex disappears and bub is more aware. Therefore, by four to five months, bub may have learnt other ways to calm, such as rubbing cloth tags, sucking knots on toys and cloth, twirling hair, patting or head-banging the mattress, turning the head from side to side, or cuddling a teddy.
It’s a good idea to encourage these new methods of soothing because as bub gets older, too much unnecessary sucking can cause ear infections or sleep, speech, and behaviour problems.
Problems with dummies
While your baby benefits from sucking a dummy, the increased bacteria-laced saliva it produces can backwash and cause ear infections. Continual dummy sucking can also hide natural breastfeeding cues and disrupt supply-and-demand milk production, which leads to a reduced length of time that bub breastfeeds for. Older bubs who continue to suck on a dummy during the day, when they are learning to form words and sounds, can develop speech production issues.
One day, you and your baby will be ready to get rid of the dummy. You can eliminate its use abruptly by ceremoniously (depending on bub’s age and understanding) discarding all the dummies you have so there is no turning back, and introduce another way to settle your baby.
A less traumatic approach is to wean dummy use slowly. Introduce another comforter such as a cuddly (made of breathable fabric and not too big) while your bub still sucks his dummy, then slowly reduce the length of time bub uses his dummy and put a greater emphasis on the other comforter. Restrict dummy use to only in the cot or car. Have reduced sucking time by removing the dummy before he’s asleep – replace it for a few minutes again only if he’s distressed. Give him opportunities to discover other ways to calm.
If you are consistent with what you are doing it should take about three weeks for your bub to learn a new way to calm and sleep. If you’re finding getting rid of the dummy too challenging or you need support, speak with a child health professional for advice.