Thursday, February 23, 2012

The great dummy debate - to use or not to use

This debate appears from time to time and I am always slightly bemused it. It is so banal but at the same time also important. An odd combination. Do you give your baby/child a dummy to suck on?

A summary of the effects of dummies was presented in a recent newspaper article by Rosie Squires

22% of new mothers who gave their child a dummy were advised by a mid wife
28% were told to use a dummy by their mother or mother-in-law

Dummies can be:

Useful settling tool

They are addictive

Prolonged use can cause overbite and speech problems

Many hospital policies say nurses should discourage mothers from using a dummy

Robin Baker, author of “Baby Love’ says parents should avoid using dummies if possible

baby & bear

She clearly presents the case against dummy use. Firstly she is saying they can be addictive. I must say I find that an odd comment - what does it even mean?

If they can cause over bite is a very debatable point and would apply to only a very small group of children. To shift the position of the teeth in the jaw is a very difficult thing to do. It takes considerable pressure to be applied over a very prolonged period of time. For a child to do such a thing indicates other psychological disturbance anyway. It seems that it is impossible for a dummy to apply such pressure. The part inside the mouth is made of soft plastic and can not apply any force onto the teeth. As an example now, just do some sucking and you can see no pressure is being applied to the teeth with the sucking reflex. With thumb sucking pressure could be applied to the teeth by the thumb but again it would have to be quite forceful and over a very long period of time.

Even if it is possible to shift the teeth a dentist confirmed to me that should the baby (primary) teeth be moved when they fall out the secondary teeth would come down in the normal position anyway. The falling out of these teeth lasts from 6 to 12 years of age.


From a psychological point of view the very first stage of life is the oral stage. It is the first way the child communicates with the world. By sucking, usually in breast feeding. It is acknowledged that children need to get oral stimulation by sucking, touching the lips and the oral cavity. Young children will naturally put items in their mouth as it is the way they understand the world. As parents find out that will include all sorts of things from small toys, food, worms, dirt, snails and so forth. When adults want to discover the nature of an object they pick it up, look at it and touch it. That is how they come to understand it. A young child does not have the cognitive ability to do that so it discovers the object by placing it in the mouth and that is how it understands things in the world. All this is seen as basic requirement for psychological health. To deprive a child of such oral experiences and stimulation would be seen as a retrograde step psychologically.

Kid kissing pig
"It's how I understand the world."

As it is an orally focussed person the child also learns that to relieve distress and stress it can suck. This is one of the very first ways a child learns how to emotionally regulate it self. It is one of the very first ways it learns how to self soothe. With the use of a dummy or a thumb the child can learn how to do its very first self soothing and emotional regulation.

In the oral stage problems can occur in two ways. Firstly the parents deprive the child of enough oral stimulation. By various means they do not allow the child to touch its mouth, have objects in it’s mouth on which to suck and so forth. If the need for oral stimulation is not met then the person goes through life craving the sucking reflex and oral stimulation. One prime example of this is cigarette smoking.


People smoke cigarettes for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it is a way by which they can gain the oral stimulation and sucking reflex which they were deprived of in childhood. It is this group of smokers who find it very difficult to give up because it is satisfying one of the most basic needs humans have and people will be very reluctant to let that go.

The other difficulty is when the the child is traumatized in some way when it is in the oral stage of development (0 - 18 months of age). It could be repeatedly hit or maybe left for long periods of time unattended. This significantly traumatizes the child such that it becomes fixated at the stage in which it is - the oral stage. In adulthood this can lead to all kinds of psychological manifestations in adulthood which these two diagrams show, particularly in the second.

Oral Stage 1

Oral Stage 2

The thing which surprises me about all this is that the great dummy debate even exists in the first place and some people can get quite emotive about it all. All that is happening is a baby is sucking on a piece of soft plastic, what on earth can be wrong with such a banal piece of human behaviour.

Of course it is not about the behaviour but about the reactions adults have when they observe the behaviour. What they see is a baby satisfying one of it’s very first needs and this can bring up all sorts of feelings for the adult observer. It reminds them of how they were allowed or not allowed to satisfy their own needs and this can generate strong internal emotions for the adult.



  1. I sucked my thumb until I was 30 years old (sad but true) and had no teeth issues caused by it. When my son was a baby I substituted his thumb sucking for a dummy with the idea that it was easier to get rid of a dummy.

    He used it for sleep and just resting until his first tooth fell out at 4 years old. It was quite hard for him to give up, especially at night, but we talked about his feelings and within a week or two he was okay with it all. Had he asked for it back after two weeks I would have said okay and gave him that option. But he stuck to his guns and did other things to go to sleep (being read to, having me lie with him etc) Years later he had braces but the dentist said that he gets all sorts needing braces - suckers and non suckers. It is what it is and it is all fixable.

    I cannot tell you how nice it is to thumb suck and I presume that dummy sucking must be the same. I was punished for thumb sucking and I really think that is why it took so, so long for me to give up and the giving up was hard. I have, over the years and when stressed, sometimes indulged but the thumb does not fit so well. It still feels nice in its own way. When I think of it now I feel very warm in some small place in my head. Haha, at 48 you would have to laugh at that one.

    I have really strong feelings on this. My parents bound my fingers at night, painted crap on the nails and all sorts of things. And they would tease me in front of their friends for doing it. I have not quite forgiven them.

    By the way, I love that photo of the pig with the toddler. I recall kissing a pig's nose when I was about 13 and the end of it was wet and wiggly.

  2. Thanx for your comments Linda.
    I don't think you are all that alone.
    First I at times suggest to some clients that they get a dummy or suck their thumb at night if they feel the need. Some take this up and some do not. How ever many more will take up the idea (or they already have) of some kind of soft toy, teddy bear or some kind of security balnket that has a nice feel for them. Of course psychologically this is no different to the thumb sucking. It serves the same psychological function. Often they reprt putting it next to their face and even may chew a bit on it with their lips. Again no diffferent to the thumb sucking. And finally some cigarette smokers are true blue thumb suckers but just use a cigarette instead

    I found a much better photo for my blog too.


  3. Haha, you know, that is one of my favourite photos and I don't even smoke. However, I did smoke socially in my 20's and to this day I recall the sheer delight of lighting a ciggy. It's a delightfully dirty habit.

  4. As a mother of two littlies who are both using dummies, I love them, and I love how calm they can make a distressed child - they just help melt away all that stress. Small children have such difficulty with emotion regulation.
    I too was worried about the effects of the dummy on tooth development, especially in my 3 year old, but I've had two paediatric dentists confirm that as long as the habit is over by the age of 6 then there will be no lasting damage. One of these wise dentists told me to "chose my battles" and that having or not having a dummy was just not that important - let the child have it.

  5. Thanks Lousie,
    Those are good comments. I have spoken to two dentists and they have said the same. The dental argument is just not valid. it all seems such a storm in a teacup. For heavens sake we are only talking about babies sucking on dummies

  6. I love the kid and the pig piccie - first time I have seen it and it made me laugh.

    Well Tony,
    14 months since I quit smoking now and I don't much think about it now. I put on 14pounds last year as I ate too many cakes as a substitute. I have strictly controlled my calorie intake and only allowed myself alcohol on a friday night since 1 jan. my self control has been outstanding and I have lost the full 14 pounds. Yea!
    So what has happened to my oral fixation?
    My mother used to tell me that she didn't need a plastic dummy. Instead she'd stick a currant bun in my mouth and that would keep me quiet for hours. I must say as an adult one of my favourite foods is an iced currant bun!
    On another note mrs k and I are off to Windsor castle next week to meet the queen!

  7. Maybe you don't have an oral fixation Kahless.

    In terms of oral stimulation it does not matter what is in the mouth whether that be a dummy or a cup cake. Both will surfice. However the cup cake may cause other damage like later comfort eating.

    You could chew on sugarless gum or tick tacks and that would do also