Thinking games to play with your toddler and young child
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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Toddler development & learning

Is it OK for my toddler to use a dummy or pacifier?

Dummies or pacifiers are used a lot in the West to soothe babies. There are advantages and disadvantages to using them, however, and there is concern that protracted use into toddlerhood can hinder speech and language development and increase the risk of dental problems.
In Short
Dummies or pacifiers do not interfere with breastfeeding in mothers who are committed to breastfeeding and offer protection to young babies from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

The downside is they increase the risk of ear infections, impaired tooth, bite and mouth development, speech delay, vomiting bugs, diarrhoea, fever and colic.

In children over the age of 12 months, dummies or pacifiers should only be used in response to specific soothing needs.

When weaning, gradual withdrawal is gentler.

Scientific evidence collated by the Cochrane Collaboration (a global independent network of health experts) concluded that dummies do not interfere with breastfeeding with mums who are determined to breastfeed and in fact may protect young babies from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

On the downside, dummies are associated with several problems in babies and toddlers, including:

  • Increased occurrence of middle ear infections.
  • Impaired tooth, bite and mouth development when used beyond six months.
  • Speech delay if used too much during daytime.
  • Increased risk of vomiting bugs, diarrhoea, and fevers.
  • A higher chance of colic.

Many parents worry about dummy or pacifier use and feel judged if their baby or toddler uses one. An over-reliance on dummies can reduce opportunities for your toddler to talk and also negatively affect their teeth and jaw development.

Use of dummies or pacifiers during the day

For older children (those over the age of 12 months), dummies should only be used in response to specific soothing needs. So a dummy might still be used when your toddler hurts himself or goes to sleep but isn’t permanently in his mouth. Dummies can interfere with speech development in toddlers so restrict their use and make sure your toddler gets plenty of opportunities to talk, sing and chat during the day.

Weaning your toddler off a dummy

If your toddler has a dummy in his mouth, explain that you cannot understand what he is saying and if he takes it out you can then more easily understand him. Toddlers get very frustrated when they can’t be understood so this is a strong motivator to ditch the dummy during the daytime.

Some parents find a ‘coming of age’ ceremony, where their toddler voluntarily hands over their dummies to a ‘dummy fairy’, can help a toddler or pre-schooler stop using a dummy. In return, the dummy fairy leaves them a thank you present. However, this might be a little too sophisticated for younger toddlers as it’s quite a complicated concept to understand.

Instead, it might be easier to slowly reduce the situations in which your toddler is allowed to have his dummy. If there’s a time when you don’t want your child to use a dummy, for example, when you are out and about, stick to your guns but try to distract your child rather than be confrontational. This more gradual reduction in dummy use might make the transition easier for your toddler.

Is it hard to wean a toddler off their pacifier or dummy?

In a word, yes. Using a dummy and thumb sucking are often deeply-ingrained, comforting habits and weaning your child off them can be hard, upsetting and stressful for everyone. It can be so difficult that many parents wish they had never introduced a dummy in the first place and avoid introducing a dummy with subsequent children. Thankfully parents no longer put things like mustard on to their child’s thumb or dummy in a misguided attempt to wean their toddler, but it’s still a testing time that needs careful handling.

In terms of how to wean your child off his dummy, going ‘cold turkey’ will probably prove very stressful if he is very attached to it. Gradual withdrawal is gentler but it can take so long and be so protracted that the total amount of upset and crying might be the same as if you went cold turkey in the first place. That said, it’s the method I would recommend, and it will be easier for both you and your toddler if you have a rough plan so it’s easy for you to be consistent and for your toddler to accept the new rules.

So for example, you may want to get to a point where your toddler is only using his dummy for naps and going to sleep. Rather than move straight to that point, you could go for a few easier stages:

• Stage 1 – take your toddler’s dummy out every time you speak to him and explain with: ‘Mummy/Daddy can’t hear what you say with your dummy in.’

• Stage 2 – no dummy at mealtimes, again explain (each time): ‘Your mouth is eating now, so no dummy – you need to taste your yummy food and eat it all up so you can grow big and strong.’

• Stage 3 – no dummy outside of the house. Explain that your child can have his dummy at nap time or bedtime but not when you are out and about.

Top Tip: Dummies can interfere with speech development in toddlers so although you don’t have to stop them completely you really need to restrict their use and make sure your toddler gets plenty of opportunity to talk and chat with no dummy or thumb sucking during the daytime.

Arthur loved those big cherry dummies and got into the habit of having it in his mouth all the time. It was tough at night when he was little as he’d cry if he woke up and it had fallen out so I was forever going into his room, finding the dummy and giving it back to him. In the end, I put in a few in his cot at night (some were fluorescent) and he’d find them. During the day I wanted to prepare him for starting nursery when I went back to work, so about six months before, I started slowly reducing the situations in which he could have his dummy. If he was sad I’d still give it to him but eventually he just had it for naps and night time, which I was happy with.
Real mum story. Sharon, mum to Arthur, 30 months.
References and further reading

Jaafar SH, Jahanfar S, Angolkar M, et al. (2011) Pacifier use versus no pacifier use in breastfeeding term infants for increasing duration of breastfeeding (Review). The Cochrane Collaboration.

Jenik AG, Vain NE, Gorestein AN, Jacobi NE, for the Pacifier and Breastfeeding Trial Group. Does the recommendation to use a pacifier influence the prevalence of breastfeeding? Journal of Pediatrics 2009;155(3):350–4.

Kramer MS, Barr RG, Dagenais S, Yang H, Jones P, Ciofani L, et al. Pacifier use, early weaning, and cry/fuss behavior: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2001;286(3):322–6.

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.