Dummies and thumb sucking do not cause common speech disorder

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

While the use of dummies in the first year remains controversial among health professionals and parents alike, a new study by the University of Sydney has revealed that they do not trigger nor exacerbate the most common child speech disorder, phonological impairment.

Lead author Dr Elise Baker, a speech pathologist at University of Sydney's Faculty of Health Sciences says that many people assume the use of dummies impairs speech development because it stops the baby or toddler from approximating then mastering speech.

She says, "There is a misconception that dummies impact children's opportunities to learn or practise speech, however our study shows no connection between dummy use in the early years and the presence or severity of the most common type of childhood speech problem."

Dr Baker then identifies the real culprit at work when it comes to this common speech disorder, which can be identified when a child persistently mispronounces words beginning with two consonants, such as 'tar' for star.

"The findings suggest that for the majority of children with speech delay the problem is not to do with the mouth, but rather associated with how children learn the sound system of language."

The study, published in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, surveyed the parents of 199 pre-school age children to determine if the patterns around their child's sucking behaviour affected speech. The childrens' speech was also tested by researchers and results were compared between those with and without the disorder.

Acknowledging the pros and cons of dummy use, she adds, "Dummies may have benefits such as helping premature babies develop sucking skills, reducing pain during medical procedures, reduced risk of developing allergies and possibly even reduce SIDS risk. On the flip side they have also been associated with gastrointestinal infections, more ear infections, incorrect bite, bowel obstruction and reduced breast-feeding duration among other issues."

Co-author Dr Sarah Masso was also careful to qualify that this study did not assess whether dummies, bottles and thumb sucking affected other speech disorders such as lisps.

How many Australian children have this common speech disorder?

Researchers estimate that approximately 11,560 of 340,000 four and five-years-olds who attend preschool have a speech disorder.

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10,404 of these are likely to have phonological impairment, which is the most common kind of speech disorder.

When should you seek advice?

Dr Baker says there are some things to watch for if you think your child might have a speech disorder.

"Parents should be concerned when an 18-month-old isn't starting to communicate and use words, or when a two-year-old has less than 50 words and is not putting two words together."

"If a child is four and their speech is still difficult to understand I would certainly suggest parents seek help from a qualified speech pathologist," she said.

As always, early identification is the ideal. The research team says that kids who don't get treatment early in life are at risk of anxiety and mental health issues, as well as problems with reading and writing.