My advice is on the front page of The Daily Mail today and I’ve been interviewed on 10 BBC radio stations around the UK and am appearing on the ITV This Morning sofa tomorrow morning talking about little Harper Beckham having a dummy at the age of 4.
Instead of focusing on the fantastically happy family photo of David Beckham having enormous fun with his 16 year old son Brooklyn and 4 year old Harper the media have gone mad judging their parenting.
Dummies, cuddly blankets, soft toys or thumbs are some of the comforters (or pacifiers, or attachment objects) that help children relax when they are little. Sucking is pleasant and calming for babies. Sucking or holding comforters helps very young children to feel safe when they are not with their parents or other family members, until they are old enough to feel OK and confident by themselves.
Of course not all children have comforters or need them. Often children who sleep near their parents or a sibling at night, and who are cared for during the day by a parent or other close family member, seem less likely to need a comforter or dummy. But they are very important for the children who do use them. So try not to be cavalier in your approach if you decide that your little one needs to give it up.
Sometimes I suggest that parents introduce a teddy or a toy instead of letting a little one constantly suckle if you’re breast feeding as your little one maybe using your breast for comfort rather than food. But it’s a better idea to ask your child which toy or comforter they want because it’s not about you – it’s about them! It has to be something that is special for your child.
Why children use comforters
Dummies, thumb sucking and blankets often have a special meaning for babies and for young children. Your child develops a need for the object to feel safe when perhaps they are alone, like at bedtime so they develop a strong attachment to their chosen comforter to help them ease their stress or anxiety.
The object is a reminder of the special close times that little ones have with you and it becomes a replacement for that closeness. They are a kind of bridge to help your child move from the safety of being with you to the big, wide world around them.
Children usually have a strong need for the object at times of stress or change or separation, such as bedtime or when in child care, and studies have found that comforters help children to deal better with times of stress or anxiety.
The comforter can also sometimes help your child to express their emotions. Children can fight, cuddle or be angry with their teddy, dummy or blanket.
As your child gets older and they are able to feel more secure inside themselves and they begin to feel more confident, the need for their comforter reduces and it will gradually not be needed so often. But I remind the parents that I work with that’s it’s important for your child to have control over this. So work together to start weaning your child off their dummy, blanket or toy.
I think people forget that it’s all about finding a balance. I gave my son Will a dummy at 1.30 am after agonising over whether to give him a dummy or not, but I really couldn’t settle him due to teething and he immediately relaxed and went to sleep after I popped it in ! So remember when a child uses a comforter, that comforter can make a positive contribution to their healthy emotional development.
At what age do children use comforters?
Many babies get attached to a special toy or other comforter at about 6 months of age (although they may have it before).
From 8-9 months on, the need for the comforter may be strong, especially at times when your baby isn’t with you, such as at bedtime. If the comforter is a blanket or soft toy remember it is safest to take it out of the cot when your baby is asleep if your baby is under 12 months old.
Children need the comforter most between about 1 and 3 years of age, before they have learned to feel safe when you their parent is not there.
Children are usually ready to give them up by 3 to 4 years of age – at least in the daytime.
If a child still clings to the comforter by school age, it is important to ask what it is that is making your child worried, rather than to abruptly take the comforter away.
I was speaking on LBC radio about Harper Beckham still having a dummy at 4 years old and the eminent dentist reassured everyone that dummies really don’t damage the development of a child’s teeth.
However a friend of mine Priya Desai is a Speech Therapist and she is worried that a child could develop a lisp if they use a dummy too much and for too long.
When do children need comforters?
Children use comforters mostly when they are worried, anxious or afraid, or tired.
They are usually needed at times such as bedtime or when staying with someone else (eg childcare).
Sometimes a family wants to keep the last child ‘their baby’ so they are not as fussy about milestones and appearances.
When your child starts at preschool or nursery or starts in a new childcare environment they may still want their comforter while they are there, but they might not want the other children to know. In this case, sometimes a dummy or piece of blanket can be pinned hidden in a pocket so your little one can touch it when they feel anxious or need reassurance or when they need to.Sometimes a special place to go when the comforter is needed may be helpful too as your child feels reassured that they can go to their ‘special place’ whenever they want to.
Helping other children, and brothers & sisters, to learn that the comforter is special to their friend or sibling can protect your child’s rights to their special object. It’s about respecting their need for it not ridiculing them.
Sometimes, however, if your child needs their comforter a lot, this will interfere with their opportunities to interact with you and others, their ability to join in with play, or their speech development as well as their social skills and their vocabulary.
One of the good things about a dummy is that you can easily replace it if it gets lost or damaged. It is important not to let dummies get too worn before you replace them.
Also be mindful that small pieces of their dummy could break off and become lodged in your baby’s windpipe.
Dummies should not be tied to your child’s clothes as the cord could go around a their neck and cause strangling.
The ideal age for stopping sucking on a dummy is about 2 years, but there seems to be relatively little harm to teeth and jaw development according to a leading academic dentist I was speaking too even if the habit continues until a child turns 5/6.
Sometimes a child may develop a speech problem, such as a lisp, if the child has a dummy in their mouth too often or for too long, when they are talking.
Also it’s not a good idea to stick the dummy in sugar or honey or alcohol or anything sweet because obviously this can damage your child’s teeth and for other obvious reasons.
If dummies are used with very young babies before breastfeeding really gets going well, the babies may not suck on the nipple as well as is needed to keep up the milk supply.
Dummies should not be used to make breast-fed babies wait for a feed when they are hungry unless your doctor or child health nurse suggests it to make the time between feeds longer (‘space the feeds’).
Babies use a different kind of sucking on the dummy from the breast, so it is recommended by breastfeeding organisations that a dummy is not used until breastfeeding is going well.
Using a dummy seems to lower the risk of SIDS.
There have been quite a few claims that dummies can have bad effects on the health or development of children. These claims have generally been shown to be untrue. For example, research has shown that:
children who use dummies are not likely to be less intelligent than other children. (Some research with tiny premature babies has shown that those who are given special dummies do better developmentally than those who do not get these dummies.) Also children who use dummies are not more likely to get ear infections.
I was a thumb sucker and liked to twirl my Mum’s rather coarse hair as a little one so I know first hand about this one. But I’m happy to say I gave it up eventually.
Sometimes children will not take any comforter but their thumbs or fingers.
Thumbs and fingers are harder to give up than dummies or other comforters because they are there all the time.
Try to encourage your toddler or preschool child not to talk with their thumb or their fingers in their mouth.
Past the age of 3, thumb and finger sucking may cause dental problems. If this is happening for your child, you could think about whether their life is stressful, or whether this is a habit. Also talk to a dentist about it. Telling your child to stop this minute,is not usually helpful.
Many children go on sucking their thumbs into their teens, although this is something they tend to only do when they are concentrating on something or are tired, and is not really a problem unless they are embarrassed by it
Some children use their bottle as a comforter.
If your baby chooses their bottle as a comforter, make sure that there is only water in the bottle between feeds. Continually sucking milk or juice can damage their teeth.
Aim to introduce a cup for water around about 6 months, and for a cup for milk when your baby is over 12 months old.
Soft toys and blankets
Because children really get attached to their comforter, they can get very upset if it gets lost or falls to pieces – which sometimes happens with blankets or soft toys.
If you see that your child is choosing a blanket or soft toy to be special, you could buy another one like it, so that they can both wear out at the same pace and can be changed when one needs washing. I had a client who arrived in Manchester from London to discover they had left their child’s blanket at home – it was a little stressful that holiday break weekend !
Babies under 12 months old shouldn’t have soft toys or a loose blanket in their cot while they are asleep. It is possible that the toys or blanket might cover the baby’s face.
Giving the comforter the heave – ho!
It is best for children if they can give up their comforter when they are ready, not when other people think they should ! So I feel for little Harper Beckham as the media go into a complete spin about her use of it at 4 !
Children do this when the comforter loses its special meaning for them and when they feel confident trying new things (usually between 3 and 5 years of age).
One and two year olds may agree to give their dummy to the fairies, but they do not understand that they can’t have it back when they need it so be mindful of that as your child may be distraught when they later need it and it is gone.
Nagging about it will only make your child even more worried,anxious, nervous and stressed so increasing the need their comforter more.
When you can see that your child needs it less, you can put the comforter on a shelf when they are playing happily and they can see it but get used to not needing it.
Remember your attitude to this whole business is important – if you are relaxed and consistent,confident and positive then hey ho your child will be all of these things too.
You can tell your child where the comforter is so they can get it when they need to, but it won’t just be in their mouth or their hand when they don’t need it.
Make sure your child is not lonely and too bored during the day so they are less likely to think about the comforter.
Also don’t be so busy on your mobile phone, doing the ironing or making dinner that you’re not fully present with your little one, talking, interacting and chatting with them – so they don’t feel ignored or side tracked. Build up their self esteem by spending TIME with them.
If your child still needs a comforter a great deal after 5 or 6 years of age, or if a younger child is unable to enjoy play without their comforter being there, it is important to try to find out what is happening in their life and to deal with any underlying stresses.
I hope this helps – it’s not about finger pointing or judging but helping families grow happy, healthy, resilient, confident children with strong self esteem and whilst I know it may be crazy that my advice is on the front page of The Daily Mail it’s got the nation thinking !
Parenting and Children’s Health Network.
ACCC ‘Babies dummies – keep baby safe’ Pamphlet
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Kramer MS, et al. ‘Pacifier use, early weaning, and cry/fuss behaviour’. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 2001; 286:322-326.
Western Australian Centre for Evidence Based Nursing and Midwifery ‘Early childhood pacifier use in relation to breastfeeding, SIDS, infection and dental malocclusion’ Best Practice Vol 9, issue 3 2005