The question of dummies often focuses on dental health, safety, or the difficulty of weaning, yet, the more important question is rarely addressed: Is the dummy beneficial? We believe that providing a dummy is responding to the baby’s need to suck and to be content. Yet, does the baby want to be content? Even if she rejects the breast because she wants to suck without receiving any milk, does she then want a pacifier? Does she want a solution or is she interested in finding her own finger? What if she wants something else, and by stopping her crying we miss her real need? Could our wish for a happy baby get in the way of her agenda?
In a phone session a mother said to me,
“I breastfeed my baby in our family bed, and then I put the dummy in his mouth and leave the room. If he wakes up and cries, I rush and put the dummy back in his mouth and, although he used to go back to sleep, recently he doesn’t. How do I get him to keep the dummy in his mouth and go back to sleep?”
“What does he want?” I asked.
“I assume he wants the pacifier, but then it keeps falling out and he cries,” she said.
“So can you really know that he wants the pacifier?”
She pondered for a minute and said, “No, I guess I cannot know that. If he could speak, he would most likely say that he wants me to stay close to him, to breastfeed and cuddle.” She started to cry and said, “He is crying because he wants me, not the pacifier. I don’t want my baby to surrender to my wish and be soothed instead of getting his need met. I want him to become assertive.” “Well, he is,” I said. “He refuses the pacifier and insists on getting you.”
“And I keep refusing his request by putting the dummy in his mouth,” she said. “Oh my, I never thought that I was giving him the pacifier instead of meeting his need for closeness. It was me who needed him to have the dummy so I could have some time with my husband.”
Indeed, the main difficulty in using a dummy is mixing our need with the baby’s. If the baby surrenders to parental will and accepts the pacifier, he could learn to give up on himself and feel unworthy. For example the message may be, “Mum wants me to be quiet (or to suck the dummy), I should ignore what I really want. I am not worthy enough to get what I want.” He might grow up and use smoking, food, TV, shopping, etc. to soothe himself when feeling low or undeserving. Babies pick up on our expectations and soon they learn to want the dummy in place of their authentic need. So the first problem with the pacifier is that in stopping the baby’s crying we may miss what she really needs and we teach her to settle for less and to see herself as undeserving.
In many cases mothers report decrease in milk supply when using a pacifier. Nature makes no mistakes. The use of the breast as a pacifier not only benefits the babys health, emotional, intellectual and social development, it also builds the milk supply. Therefore, the pacifier can
reduce the frequency and duration of breastfeeding and can even lead to early weaning.
Another mother told me, “I offer her one breast each feeding for as long as she wants. I even offer my finger, but she spits it out after a while and cries.” Did nature goof when it didn’t provide an extra dry nipple? Or, could this be nature’s way of providing the baby with an opportunity for her first self directed accomplishment?
Indeed, most babies are content with the breast. If a baby rejects the breast for sucking, I trust him to benefit from finding his own solution. For this baby, the search for his own finger could be a developmental milestone. He has the right mother with the right breasts and there are no mistakes when he decides to go for the challenge of finding his own thumb. Just as learning to walk involves falling, finding his own sucking solution is a healthy process. Providing an easy way out with a dummy may tell the baby that he is not capable of solving this introductory challenge, and that he should avoid difficulties. Yet, he is up to the challenge. We are the ones being impatient and rushing to offer easy solutions. Being left to find his own thumb, the baby is most likely to come back to using the breast fully.
Rather than preventing your baby’s efforts and the feelings that accompany them, she needs your validation and trust in her ability to take on this first challenge. She may settle for the breast after all, but if she doesn’t, support her quest; she wants to be in charge and assert her first action of independence. If it takes her a couple of months to find a solution to her drive for sucking, she needs love and support rather than an easy solution that takes the initiative out of her hands.
I raised three children without the dummy; only the youngest ended up sucking his thumb. He is a most self confident and self reliant child (you can visit him at OliverAldort.com). He sucked his thumb for five months. That’s typical; a child will be done when the sucking stage is over or is satisfied by breastfeeding alone. The only reason a child keeps using a thumb (or a dummy) after that need is satisfied is because he learned to use it to suppress feelings and tears and then develops a habit of it. If fully nursing, thumb sucking does not change the dental shape, and if not used to suppress crying, the child stops on his own easily and returns to a fuller use of the breast.
There is plenty of evidence to show us that babies and children can and must resolve some of their own frustrations if they are to grow up self reliant and confident. We don’t need to create difficulties, but we can respect those struggles of growth which are safe, and which the baby can find a solution for. She learns, “I can do it by myself, I am capable.”
When she uses the breast or her own finger, the baby governs herself. In contrast, we may put the dummy in the baby’s mouth when we think she needs it. It is easy to end up innocently controlling the baby with the pacifier because he takes the cues from us and soon he looks like he really wants it, “When I want to cry, I should suck on the dummy.” This is where many of us learned to numb ourselves rather then feel our feelings.
We may be devoted to stopping the baby’s crying at all costs. But, the costs are higher than you may realise. Some children stop using tears and join the cult of “cool.” They often develop other outlets for their emotions like stuttering, whining, aggression, and other difficulties we think of as normal child behaviour. These are not caused by the dummy alone. It is the rush to stop tears and avoid discomfort that is learned well by the child.
I am not suggesting that you leave your baby to cry. Absolutely not. Respond to your baby’s cues, and when she needs to cry, hold her, love and listen to her. Nature has the answer to the dummy question and the baby tells you what it is: She doesn’t want a dummy because she wants autonomy and she wants to be close to you. Give her the breast or, sporadically, your finger, and if she needs to suck something else, trust her to find it, and support her process. She will find it and use it a lot more wisely than you can use the dummy, because she knows herself, while you are either guessing or projecting your own feelings. Love is not always giving the baby whatever we think she wants.
Finding her own solution with your affection and trust the baby learns: Mum knows that I can handle this. I am powerful and capable. Mum loves me unconditionally no matter how I feel or how I express myself. Dad has room in his heart for my tears, rage and joy alike. My parents look for what I really need and don’t offer soothing instead of what I want. My parents are not afraid of tears; when I need to cry because I feel frustrated or helpless (it’s hard not to be able to move and to talk), I can cry in their loving arms till I feel better. My parents trust me. I can trust myself and my parents.
Instead of teaching her our own limitations, we can learn from the baby and expand our emotional capacity. If your baby will take your breast for nourishment and to fulfill her sucking needs, enjoy and stay connected. If he chooses to search for his own finger, be his ally on his path. Let’s stay close to our babies, and empower them to feel, to rise to challenges, and to stay connected and authentic.