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Dummies, thumbs and other comforters

dummies; dummy; comforter; pacifiers; transition; object; blanket; soft; toy; thumb; bottle; secure; sleep; breast; feeding; bedtime; school; afraid; worry; school; childcare; sweet; honey; sucking; breastfeeding; dental; water; attached; intelligence; otitis; media; SIDS; breast feeding; habits; development. ;

Dummies, blankets, soft toys or thumbs  are some of the comforters (or pacifiers, or attachment objects) that help children relax. Sucking or holding comforters helps very young children to feel safe when they are not with their parents or other family members.

Contents

Dummies, blankets, soft toys or thumbs  are some of the comforters (or pacifiers, or attachment objects) that help children relax. 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 by themselves.

Not all children have comforters. 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. But they are very important for the children who do use them.

Parents can encourage a child to use a particular comforter (such as a teddy or soft toy) by leaving it with the child at bedtime, but it is not possible to make a child choose what parents want. It has to be something that is special for the child.

Why children use comforters

  • Comforters have a special meaning for the infant and young child. The child develops a strong attachment to, and need for, the object to feel safe when alone.
  • The object is a reminder of the special close times that infants have with their parents and becomes a stand-in for that closeness. They are a kind of bridge to help children move from the safety of being with their family to the big 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 help the child to express her emotions. Children can fight, cuddle or be angry with their teddy, dummy or blanket.
  • As the child gets older and she is able to feel more secure inside herself, she will need the comforter less and it will gradually fall into disuse. It is important for the child to have control over this.
  • If a child uses a comforter, that comforter can make a positive contribution to her 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 the child is not with a parent, such as at bedtime. If the comforter is a blanket or soft toy it is safest to take it out of the cot when the baby is asleep if the 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 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 the child worried, rather than to take the comforter away.
  • For the normal development of teeth and jaw the ideal age for stopping sucking on a dummy is about 2 years, but there seems to be relatively little harm if the habit continues until a child turns 3. Children should be encouraged to stop sucking on a dummy before the permanent teeth come through at around 5-6 years if they have been using it beyond the age of 3.

When do children need comforters?

  • Children use comforters most when they are worried, or afraid, or tired.
  • They are usually needed at times such as bedtime or when staying with someone else (eg childcare).
  • When children start preschool, some still want the 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 the child can touch it when he needs to. Sometimes a special place to go when the comforter is needed may be helpful, as long as the child knows that he can go there whenever he wishes.
  • Helping other children to learn that the comforter is special and not to be shared can protect the child's rights to his special object.
  • Sometimes, however, if the child needs the comforter a lot, this will interfere with his opportunity to play.

Dummies

Dummies (or pacifiers) are commonly used comforters.

  • 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.
  • Dummies should be tied on short cords which cannot go around a child's neck and cause strangling (no longer than 10 cm).
  • 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 if the habit continues until a child turns 3.
  • Sometimes a child may develop a speech problem, such as a lisp, if the child has a dummy in her mouth when she is talking.
  • Dummies should not be used with glycerine or anything sweet such as honey on them, because this can damage the child's teeth.

The effect dummies have on breastfeeding is still not fully clear.

  • 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.)
  • children who use dummies are not more likely to get ear infections.

Thumbs and fingers

  • 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 her thumb or fingers in her 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 her life is stressful, or whether this is a habit. Also talk to a dentist about it. Telling the child to stop 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.

Bottles

Some children use their bottle for a comforter.

  • If a baby chooses the bottle as a comforter, make sure that there is only water in the bottle between feeds. Continually sucking milk or juice can damage 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.
  • Babies under 12 months old should not have soft toys or a loose blanket in their cot or bassinette while they are asleep. It is possible that the toys or blanket might cover the baby's face. See the topic 'Safe sleep for babies and toddlers'.

Giving up comforters

It is best for children if they can give up their comforter when they are ready, not when other people think they should.

  • 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. The child may be distraught when he later needs it and it is gone.
  • Nagging about it will make the child more worried and need the comforter more.

When you can see that your child needs it less, you can put the comforter on a shelf when he is playing happily.
 

  • You can tell the child where the comforter is so he can get it when he needs to, but it won't just be in his mouth or hand when he doesn't need it.
  • Make sure the child is not lonely and bored during the day so he is less likely to think about the comforter.

If a 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 the comforter being there, it is important to try to find out what is happening in his life and to deal with any underlying stresses.

References

ACCC 'Babies dummies - keep baby safe' Pamphlet

Applegate JS. 'The transitional object reconsidered: some socio-cultural variations and their implications'. Child and Adolescent Social Work 1989 Vol 6, No 1.

Hauck FR, Omojokun OO, Siadaty MS 'Do pacifiers reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - a meta-analysis' Pediatrics Vol 116, 5 2005 pp e716-e723 

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

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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