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Why I think these scare stories completely suck.

Byline: Hilarie Stelfox

ANOTHER week and another 'scientific' report for parents to worry about. Last week it was the risks of sharing a bed with babies, this week the headlines warned: 'New research links long use of dummy to speech defects'.

Apparently, American and Chilean researchers have discovered that sucking on a dummy past the age of three has negative consequences.

"Well,'' I said to my boss, who had thoughtfully placed a cutting of this story on my desk, "I'm sure that a dummy saved my sanity when Firstborn was a baby.'' And so today, I write in praise of dummies, comforters, pacifiers, call them what you will.

This is one of those issues to which common sense must be applied. It stands to reason that shoving a 'gob-stopper' in your child's mouth day and night for years on end will impair their ability to speak, suppress their desire to do so, and deform their developing teeth and jaw. We didn't really need a research project to tell us that. And, in any case, the project studied the behaviour of only 128 pre-school children from Patagonia, who had, variously, sucked fingers, dummies, breasts and bottles - hardly an exhaustive sample.

The subject of dummies tends to polarise parents. My mother hated them with a passion and took every opportunity to remove Firstborn's dummy whenever she came to visit. She was particularly anxious that he shouldn't be seen in public with one.

From our perspective, the dummy transformed our grizzling, grumpy baby into a slightly more contented and compliant infant.

With dummy in place we could complete simple household tasks without having to carry him around in a sling.

At night, the dummy helped his over-active brain to switch off and sleep. We were more than happy to use them, quite shamelessly, in public.

Before Firstborn's arrival I thought we wouldn't be the sort of parents who gave their child a dummy. But I was wrong. There's a certain snobbishness surrounding dummies. Is it because they look a bit naff? Or do they hint at poor parenting, an inability or unwillingness to settle your child without resorting to an artificial device? Is there a suggestion that dummies are used instead of cuddles and human contact? The American and Chilean researchers also looked at the effects of bottle feeding, breast feeding and thumb sucking on speech development. Again, not surprisingly, it was discovered that babies who had been breast fed were less likely to have speech impediments than those who had been bottle fed or sucked their thumbs.

Firstborn was a breast fed baby and we only gave him a dummy when he was fractious, which, admittedly, was quite frequently. It had a miraculous calming effect.

By the time he was a toddler, a time of greater contentment, the dummy had become a sleep aid. And shortly before his third birthday we dispensed with it altogether - a bit of Thomas the Tank Engine bribery did the trick.

My friend told her daughter that the Dummy Fairy had come to reclaim her property. I knew that wouldn't work with Firstborn, who was a Father Christmas sceptic from an early age.

Not wishing to brag, but in order to make the point that dummies do not necessarily render children dumb, I am proud to say The Boy was speaking whole sentences by the age of 17 months and one of his first words was 'injection' (fairly typical, I'm told, of a vet's child). In fact, and I'm going to whisper this, he was an earlier talker than his sister, who never had a dummy and spat them out when they were offered to her.

Of course, there are homes where dummies are over-used. And there's no doubt that it can be a hard addiction to break if a toddler is allowed to hang on to one all day and night for too long. When Secondborn was at primary school, one of the infant class children used to be greeted at the school gates by his mother - and dummy. It was like a gin and tonic at the end of a stressful working day and a look of sheer bliss would spread across his face as he applied suction.

I'll leave you with two more findings on the subject, which show that reports and research are frequently contradictory: Previous studies on dummies have shown that they can halve the risk of cot death, but extended use may lead to an increase in ear infections.

In my view, the judicious use of a dummy to soothe a frazzled baby, not to mention the nerves of its equally frazzled parents, can only be a good thing. And we shouldn't worry about it.


* NOT SO DUMB: Using a dummy had a miraculous calming effect on my Firstborn
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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Oct 24, 2009
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