I’ve had a busy month, and I made headlines in The Mirror, discussing the photo of David Beckham’s daughter Harper sucking a dummy at the age of four. Instead of focusing on the fantastically happy family photo of David Beckham having enormous fun with his 16-year-old son Brooklyn and 4-year-old Harper, the media has gone mad judging the Beckhams’ parenting.
Dummies, cuddly blankets, soft toys or thumbs are some of the comforters (or pacifiers, or attachment objects) that help children relax when they are little. Sucking is pleasant and calming for babies. Sucking or holding comforters helps very young children to feel safe when they are not with their parents or other family members, until they are old enough to feel OK and confident by themselves.
Of course not all children have comforters or need them. Often children who sleep near their parents or a sibling at night, and who are cared for during the day by a parent or other close family member, seem less likely to need a comforter or dummy. But they are very important for the children who do use them. So try not to be cavalier in your approach if you decide that your little one needs to give it up.
Sometimes I suggest that parents introduce a teddy or a toy instead of letting a little one constantly suckle if you’re breastfeeding as your little one may be using your breast for comfort rather than food. But it’s a better idea to ask your child which toy or comforter they want because it’s not about you – it’s about them! It has to be something that is special for your child.
Dummies, thumb sucking and blankets often have a special meaning for babies and for young children. Your child develops a need for the object to feel safe when perhaps they are alone, like at bedtime, so they develop a strong attachment to their chosen comforter to help them ease their stress or anxiety.
The object is a reminder of the special close times that little ones have with you and it becomes a replacement for that closeness. They are a kind of bridge to help your child move from the safety of being with you to the big, wide world around them.
Children usually have a strong need for the object at times of stress or change or separation, such as bedtime or when in child care, and studies have found that comforters help children to deal better with times of stress or anxiety.
The comforter can also sometimes help your child to express their emotions. Children can fight, cuddle or be angry with their teddy, dummy or blanket.
As your child gets older and they are able to feel more secure inside themselves and they begin to feel more confident, the need for their comforter reduces and it will gradually not be needed so often. But I remind the parents that I work with that it’s important for your child to have control over this. So work together to start weaning your child off their dummy, blanket or toy.
Many babies get attached to a special toy or other comforter at about six months of age (although they may have it before). From around eight months, the need for the comforter may be strong, especially at times when your baby isn’t with you, such as at bedtime. If the comforter is a blanket or soft toy remember it is safest to take it out of the cot when your baby is asleep if your baby is under 12 months old.
I was interviewed by LBC radio about Harper Beckham still having a dummy at four, and an eminent dentist reassured everyone that dummies really don’t damage the development of a child’s teeth. However, a friend of mine, Priya Desai, is a speech therapist and she is worried that a child could develop a lisp if they use a dummy too much and for too long.
Children are usually ready to give them up by 3 to 4 years of age – at least in the daytime. If a child still clings to the comforter by school age, it is important to ask what it is that is making your child worried, rather than to abruptly take the comforter away.
Although they may still want their comforter while they are there, they might not want the other children to know. In this case, sometimes a dummy or piece of blanket can be pinned hidden in a pocket so your little one can touch it when they feel anxious or need reassurance.
Sometimes children will not take a comforter but instead use their thumbs or fingers. I was a thumb sucker and liked to twirl my Mum’s rather coarse hair as a little one so I know first hand about this one. Thumbs and fingers are harder to give up than dummies or other comforters because they are there all the time.
Past the age of 3, thumb and finger sucking may cause dental problems. If this is happening for your child, you could think about whether their life is stressful, or whether this is a habit. Also talk to a dentist about it. Telling your child to stop this minute, is not usually helpful.
Many children go on sucking their thumbs into their teens, although this is something they tend to only do when they are concentrating on something or are tired, and is not really a problem unless they are embarrassed by it
I hope this helps – it’s not about finger pointing or judging but helping families grow happy, healthy, resilient, confident children with strong self esteem and whilst I know it may be crazy that my advice is on the front page of The Mirror, it got the nation thinking!
Sue Atkins is an internationally recognised parenting expert, broadcaster, speaker and author of the Amazon best-selling books Parenting Made Easy – How To Raise Happy Children and Raising Happy Children for Dummies. She regularly appears on ITV’s This Morning, BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. To receive her free e-books bursting with practical tips and helpful advice from toddler to teen log on to theSueAtkins.com