Dummies, Bottles and… Communication difficulties?

There is a real debate about whether using a dummy or a bottle as a pacifier can cause difficulties with speech development. Studies have been taken on the matter with varying conclusions. However, just because the official jury is still out, this doesn’t necessarily grant carte blanche to use them without any fear of consequences. Let’s look at the matter a little more closely.



Image source: flickr.com

Starting with the plus points

The advantages of dummies and bottles are few but, arguably, important. They help to settle children down. This means they afford convenience and flexibility to parents and carers. This can equal crucial respite from having to give the constant attention that children can sometimes require. The nay-sayers might call this ‘laziness’ or a ‘cop-out’, but everybody’s situation is different. What works for one parent might prove impossible for another. Our situations are as varied and individual as our children are.

Related to this, they can also help to sooth stressed children, giving any immediate health benefit. Although there is a counter-argument here about the possibility for the child of developing a reliance on sucking as a method of stress relief or comfort. We have probably all seen older children sucking their thumb at some time or another. Or, possibly, have been that child. It’s a difficult habit to have to give up, and it could be traumatic if they need to give this habit up suddenly and at a stressful time. Say, for instance, if starting secondary school.

Another important advantage of dummies is that they can help establish good sucking with prematurely born babies. There have also been studies into whether dummies can be used in the prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, although this has yet to yield any conclusive results.


Turning to the downsides

The potential disadvantages are more numerous. There is a general issue with hygiene, of keeping a dummy or the teat of a bottle clean if it comes into contact with unclean things, like the floor. Even the most vigilant parent might not always notice. This can lead to stomach problems and other illness. Ear infections have also been reported as increased in children using dummies.

Mouth breathing can be an issue, as well, which can lead to excessive dribbling, while there can also be overdevelopment of muscles at the front of the mouth compared to the back, due to the persistent ‘exercise’ of sucking. Related to this can be dental problems, particularly with a child’s ‘bite’, where the teeth can become misaligned.

There is also a general concern, obviously – especially with bottle use – over reduced breastfeeding, or that breastfeeding can come to an end earlier. The World Health Organisation (WHO), in particular, make a case about this, claiming that this may not be best for the child.


Talking about communication difficulties

The biggest concerns, however, are around speech. Dummies restrict the sort of babbling and mimicry which form the very beginnings of a baby’s attempts at speech. Similarly, children learn speech by copying the adults around them, the shapes and the movements of the mouth. Hard to do with a dummy in!

Many of the sounds for speech are made at the front of the mouth. Children attempting to speak with a dummy in are going to try and ‘work round’ the dummy, adjusting their method of speaking at such an early, critical phase. And this can alter their ability to make certain sounds.

As mentioned at the start of this article, the debate about dummy use and speech goes on. Children who never use dummies can struggle with speech, such is the individuality of human beings. But there are a lot of studies out there suggesting that prolonged bottle and dummy use increases the chances of difficulties with a child’s speech. Maybe the best thing is to be sensible and play it safe:

The generally accepted cut-off point for use of a dummy is 12 months, although for children struggling to settle at night, continued use for that singular purpose is okay, as long the child does not have it during the day.

This time period makes sense when we look at the potential disadvantages of dummy use – dental issues, dummies dirtied by mobile children and speech – which all become significant at about a year. This does not mean that a parent should start to ‘wean’ their child off of their dummy at a year, of course, but rather should be looking to reduce use from about 6 months, with the aim of totally having removed it by 12 months.


Image Credits: Udi Tirosh