Dummy or no dummy?

Bad habit? A dummy offers advantages - but has its disadvantages, too.
Bad habit? A dummy offers advantages - but has its disadvantages, too. 

You’re stuck on the couch having the life sucked out of you by the tiny person latched onto your breast as though his life depends on you (actually, it kind of does right now!). Being needed so intensely is making you feel overwhelmed, and now you’re totally confused by the unhelpful comments being tossed at you, including, ‘He’s just using you as a dummy’. And you wonder, am I really just a human dummy? Should I just give my baby a ‘real’ dummy?

Sucking is a comfort to babies; it helps them relax. In fact, your baby quite possibly sucked his fingers even before he was born.

After his birth, your baby will need to suck often to practise the skill needed to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing, all of which are needed for him to become an effective little feeder. If you surrender to his needs he’ll learn more quickly, so soon his feeds will be much shorter.

Meanwhile, try making feeding times ‘me’ times by setting up a comfortable feeding station. Keep a basket full of things to nurture and comfort yourself close at hand, including healthy snacks, a water bottle, breast pads, phone, a book or magazine to read, and a pen and pad to jot lists on if you don’t keep notes in your phone. You can also use the time to catch up with a DVD series of your favourite TV program. All these things mean you’ll be able to enjoy this precious time, instead of feeling restless and resentful.  

In the early days, your baby will often indicate that he wants the breast – nature’s most convenient pacifier – by ‘rooting’ (turning his head towards the breast and making grasping movements with his mouth), even when he isn’t really hungry. Some mothers may find it disconcerting to have a baby who wants to be almost constantly ‘attached’, but be reassured: as he gets used to the world and his movements become more controlled, and he’s able to find his own fingers to suck on, he won’t rely on nursing as a form of comfort as much.

A bit of finger-sucking can simply be a baby exploring, or doing some self-soothing

Of course, a bit of finger-sucking can bring more criticism from others, and advice that you should give your baby a dummy because ‘you can get rid of a dummy, but you can’t get rid of a thumb’. Again, you can relax – a bit of finger-sucking can simply be a baby exploring, or doing some self-soothing if Mum has an abundant milk supply. And usually, as they become mobile, babies will stop finger-sucking – they’ve got to explore their surroundings, and will have much more exciting things to do than sit around sucking their thumbs all day!     

If your baby self-soothes through almost continuous finger-sucking, however, it’s worth considering if it’s a way of making up for comfort he could perhaps get from you in other ways – for instance, with a cuddle, some focussed attention, distraction to avert boredom or discomfort, or to help your him relax at sleep time.

Offering a dummy may buy you some short-term relief at times when your baby seems inconsolable, or it may be helpful if he’s an unsettled baby generally. But before you offer it to him, it’s worth considering the potential disadvantages:

  • Dummies/teats require a different sucking action from nipples, so offering a dummy in the early weeks, before breastfeeding is well established, may create or exacerbate breastfeeding difficulties, such as effective latching. If your baby is unsettled and has had a good feed but seems to want to suck, you could try offering him your clean finger to suck on (often just a few minutes of this will help him calm and settle). A finger holds your baby’s tongue flat, in a similar position to breastfeeding, while a dummy encourages a ‘thrusting’ tongue action.
  • There are no calories in a dummy. Inadvertently popping a dummy in when your baby is actually trying to signal hunger, or in order to ‘stretch out feeds’, can have a negative effect on his weight gain and your own milk supply.
  • In the long run, dummies can turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth, as some babies who sleep with dummies are woken – and start crying – every time the dummy slips out. For this reason, if you do use a dummy to help your baby drift off, it’s wise to use it sparingly, and to remove it once he’s fallen asleep. This way he won’t be disturbed if it slides from his mouth while he’s sleeping. 

If you do decide to use a dummy and find it helps to comfort your baby, watch his cues: if he spits it out, don’t keep plugging him up again, as you run the risk of blocking his only means of communication. He may want his needs met in other ways, such as being fed, played with or talked to.     

Pinky McKay is a certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) who runs a private practice in Melbourne, specialising in gentle parenting techniques. Pinky’s four books and her ebook, Breastfeeding Simply, can be found on her website.