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  • Writer's pictureLisa Taylor-Jones

How to use a dummy effectively

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

It’s a recurring topic here at Step Up - how to use a dummy effectively. Parents want to know when is the best time to use a dummy but just as importantly, when not to. Parents want to do what’s best for their little ones but there is an abundance of conflicting information out there because not everyone’s experience is the same. It’s not a one shoe fits all situation. How simple it would be if it were!

As speech and language therapists here in Plymouth, we regularly see first-hand the physical effects of overuse and how this changes the shape of a child's mouth. It is one of the many contributing factors why a child might develop a speech delay. The key word here is overuse and today we’re going to look at how to use a dummy effectively and explain some of the physiological effects of overuse on a child's mouth.

But first of all…

Dummies are great!

I’m just going to take my speech and language therapist hat off and slip my parenting one on. Dummies are great! Lifesavers! Givers of sleep and sanity. And this is just for us fellow parents! I remember when my sister, who is a dentist and absolutely knows the detrimental effect of dummy overuse, presented my daughter with a dummy when she was 18 months old.

I was too tired to argue. Sleep deprivation causes brain delay!

It improved my quality of life instantly. I couldn’t believe how I’d survived those 6pm screams every night for the last 18 months without this object of wonder. This bringer of peace. Not only did it soothe her when she was upset but I could pre-empt times that could be difficult, such as a long car journey, and have one ready for when the wailing began!

Life was pretty great for a while but while preparing for a long journey in the car I realised I’d lost her dummy. I took a chance and didn’t mention it but while travelling she started sucking her thumb. This was a problem. I instantly saw the path that lay ahead and the speech and language therapist inside me nudged the parent aside and took charge of the situation.

I was overusing the dummy. Depending on it. I knew what I had to do. I stopped at some services and purchased another dummy because I knew it was better if she used something that I could eventually withdraw – rather than replacing it with a 24/7 attached solution. Change was required and I had to be the one to do it.

The problem with overusing a dummy

Here comes the other side of the situation. The problem with overusing a dummy. Dummies obstruct the articulators at the front of the mouth. They don’t just prevent the lips from sealing to make P B and M sounds, but they also obstruct the tongue from meeting the alveolar ridge. That’s the hard fleshy ridge behind your top front teeth and such an important speech tool.

We connect our tongue with the alveolar ridge to make T, D N, S and Z sounds. But if there’s something in the way, such as a dummy, then we simply cannot achieve this. When children are two-years-old they begin making P B M N W H sounds and the following year progress onto others. But the overuse, or in most cases, the over-reliance on dummies, means children miss the majority of these sounds.

What happens then?

Children then rely on a handful of sounds that are all made at the back of the mouth. Their speech development gets stuck and a speech disorder known as ‘Backing’ is developed.

Does this sound familiar?

“I want to eat an apple,” sounds more like “I wong ke eak ang akel.”

Backed speech can be highly unintelligible to someone outside of your household or close family. You, as the primary caregiver, will most likely develop an ear for your child’s speech because you’re with them most of the time. This is to be expected of course. The real issues begin when your child enters a childcare setting or school because peers and carers have not had time to develop this understanding of your child’s speech patterns.

Effective Use

Let’s talk about effective use. If you were given a very strict choice between giving your child a dummy during the day or at night, which would you choose?

Was that a tough decision?

I don’t think there’s a parent who has contacted Step Up Speech and Language who would not choose the night because this is when we experience high levels of stress related to sleep deprivation. At night we want our babies to feel soothed and calm after feeding so we can empty the dishwasher for the tenth time that day and possibly drink a cup of tea in peace.

That’s the simple stuff.

But from the point of view of avoiding speech delay, the day is when we need children to communicate. This is when the mouth and lips learn how to form the right shapes that create the sounds which then produce speech. Does that mean we should never give our children a dummy during the day? Not at all. Should we think twice before allowing it to become a permanent comforter in their life? Absolutely.

I CAN: Supporting children’s communication development

I CAN are a charity supporting children's communication development and advises restricting dummies to use in the nighttime. This is so children can feel comforted by the dummy, at a time that is most beneficial for parents and children, without impacting their need to speak and communicate their needs in the daytime.

Click the link to read more. There’s a lot of helpful information on their website and it might help you make a well-informed decision on your child's dummy use.

If you would like to speak to the Step Up team about anything discussed in this blog please don’t hesitate to contact us for a chat.

And for any parents with concerns about autism, we launched our new service, the Plymouth Autism Team in early September 2022. You can read more about it here.

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