A few weeks ago I was poised to post a photograph of my adorable 16 month old baby girl on Instagram. Perfectly cropped, pithily captioned, and with just the right level of filter to make the image seem beautifully lit but somehow untweaked by human hand, my digit hovered over ‘Share’.
But then I stopped. Damn, why didn’t I take the dummy out of her mouth?? How could I possibly post a photo of her, clearly undistressed and totally engaged in a fun activity pulling wastepaper out of the recycling bin, with a lump of plastic jammed into her gorgeous face?
Which got me thinking. What is my – and our society’s – issue with the dummy, or pacifier, still? And where might it stem from. When I have used a dummy with three out of my four children (the second-born simply did not ever seem to need one) why is it something I still feel reluctant to ‘fess up to.
A quick skim around the Internet and parenting forums shows a reassuring balance in discussions around the soother. Where people are seeking advice on whether to use or not, the feedback is generally to stay ‘open-minded’ and feel your way. Let’s face it, many of us have vowed never to give our babies a dummy, only to get to a point where, at our most tired and raw, we finally succumb to what may be the last resort in soothing an unsettled, fractious bundle. I remember with my (poor, colicky) eldest daughter at a few weeks old feeling a little desperate that if we didn’t get into a more settled groove, I would be compelled to stop breastfeeding, as I was worried she wasn’t getting enough milk. So, after much unnecessary soul-searching, I tried a dummy. It definitely seemed to help calm her between feeds. Then at her next weigh-in we learned that she had gained nearly a solid half kilo in one week, and my sanity was a little restored.
Dummies for Dummies.
Again, a modicum of research throws up the fact that dummies in some form or another have been around for centuries. During the 1600-1800s, the coral or teething toy was often made from coral, bone or ivory, and hard teething rings were developed to replace the ‘sugar teats’ (yes, you know where we’re going with that one…) of the past, small sections of rag tied up with sugary solutions in the middle.
The first patent for a pacifier in its current form – teat, shield and handle – was filed in the US around 1900. And the rest is history. Our love-hate relationship with the dummy has persisted ever since. Quite why this is the case could be down to many things. I distinctly remember my aunty – a rather formidable District Nurse – calling my childhood dummy a ‘horrible, dirty thing’. Concerns over hygiene are no doubt a ‘thing’ and there is much debate and advice on dummy use, from whether they can cause tummy bugs to whether a parent sucking a dummy clean rather than always sterilising it might actually make the baby less eczema-prone, to some guidance that suggests using a dummy can guard against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), or advice on how long and when you should give a dummy, whether it acts as a barrier in establishing breastfeeding, or impedes speech development. Then, finally of course, how to get rid of the damn thing. All of which adds to the dummy dilemma.
I once set up an interview with the psychologist Penelope Leach who has written extensively and somewhat iconically on child-centric rearing since Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five, was published in 1977. I don’t remember us discussing pacifier use during our discussion (I do however remember her pronouncing ‘often’ rather beautifully as ‘orphan’) but she has since offered online advice on how to be aware of still ‘listening’ to your child in order not to miss their signs and signals should they be placated with a dummy, how to distract and amuse your baby so as to limit its use, and then how to phase it out. All solid stuff. I can honestly say that for us, dummy use didn’t seem to affect language development and our offspring have continued to be lovely chatty babies, toddlers and children. Luckily they have just dropped the dummy in a fairly natural way, but other friends have gone dummy ‘cold turkey’, putting it ‘in the post for Santa’(!) once their child was old enough to understand such a concept.
So once you’ve done your research and spoken to a midwife or practitioner to voice your concerns – is there anything else left to worry about? Back in 2004 a Mumsnet user cited a survey she was involved in which suggested that attitudes towards dummy use may actually reflect how we feel about class and parenthood – i.e. the perception that people who use dummies must hail from a lower class background, or are simply taking the easy option. If this is the case, it reveals a far deeper dummy prejudice, and one that is not particularly helpful. Why do we use a rubber or silicone teat as a specifically shaped ‘stick’ to beat ourselves – and others – with. In the midst of worrying that we as mothers, and our own ‘sugar teats’ may not be good enough, the last thing we need, whatever our socio-economic status, is to feel ‘inadequate’ or ‘lazy’.
As with all things parenting then, it suggests that we have to go with what we instinctively feel, try to be strong, and brazen out the dummy thing if that’s the path we decide we’re happy to take. Not easy. But then how much of parenthood is! At the end of the day, we want to keep our babies calm, content and comfortable. And with a pacifier, or soother – well the clue’s in the name, isn’t it?
So maybe haters need to back off – and just suck it up.