Expert / 20 October, 2021 / Gemma Coe
There’s no doubt about it, babies are born with a strong desire to suck to soothe. Some babies will get instantaneous comfort from a dummy in their very early weeks whereas other babies find comfort in other things and just seem disinterested. But what to do when it comes to taking away the dummy
For babies that love their dummy, it brings them comfort, and it’s likely with that comfort they can soothe, calm and drift off to sleep. Fab! However… as they enter the deeper stages of sleep, their muscles relax and the dummy is likely to fall out. Ok, so, what does this mean in reality? Typically, one of two things will happen, they’ll stay asleep (amazing), or wake (not so amazing). If they wake, it may be either immediately or after their first sleep cycle. If the baby doesn’t notice, great! It’s likely to be a helpful sleep aid. However, if they wake either immediately or soon after it falls out then we need to rethink how ‘helpful’ it actually is.
Some babies can only resettle when the dummy is put back in and with this, they form a sleep association, needing it to drift back off. I speak to many parents who find themselves ‘re-plugging’ all night long and it can be awfully tiring. Now, I chose to do this with my little girl, her reflux was so terrible and the dummy brought such relief that I was ‘plugging it’ back in until she was old enough to do this for herself. It’s what works for you as a family, weigh up the pros and cons.
As with all children growing up, the way we go about things depends on their age and level of understanding. If they’re less than 6 months old then if I’m honest with you, it’s often better to go cold turkey when it comes to taking away the dummy. Yes, they may need a little extra help falling asleep for naps and your nights may be a little disrupted for a few days but then it’s gone.
Stick with it, be consistent and help them find other ways to seek comfort, for example having a hand on their tummy as they fall asleep, picking them up to calm before placing them back down. Little ones of this age don’t have a long-term memory and also don’t have the emotional attachment to their dummy that older children do. You may find they seek comfort in other ways such as sucking on a thumb or their wrist. If they’re young and swaddled, then swaddle with one arm out so they’ve got easy reach to their hands to help them soothe.
It gets a little tricky from here on you see. Babies have started to develop an emotional attachment and will ‘miss it’ more. You can still take away the dummy at this age, but the protests are likely to be for longer and also a little louder! You can still go cold turkey, or reduce to one nap/sleep a day and then wean from that when you feel they are ready.
From 8 months to about 2 years you may wish to teach them to find and replace instead of taking away the dummy. It is a lovely skill to teach over the period of a week.
Start with handing the dummy to the baby and guiding their hand to their mouth. Make sure you put in lots of practice throughout the day. One to two days later just hand them the dummy and watch them try to find their mouth, offer a little assistance if needed, but they should be able to grasp this. After 3-4 days, place the dummy on their chest so they can locate it, pick it up and place it in their mouth. After 4-5 days, leave the dummy on the mattress and pat where the dummy is so they learn to look around for the dummy and locate it. A few days later they’ll be able to find and replace it themselves.
Remember, this is teaching a new skill and lots of opportunities to practice ultimately makes perfect. At night time you may want to put lots of dummies in the cot to increase their chances of finding one in the dark and being able to pop it back in themselves. Comforters like this with a ‘soother saver’ are great and help increase the chances of a baby finding their dummy in the cot when it has fallen out.
As an alternative, some children this age and up will respond well to the tip of the dummy being cut off. This means it can’t be ‘sucked’ like it used to be. It then provides a different experience for them, not quite so pleasurable. They then may choose to self-wean.
The dummy fairy or dummy superhero is a really helpful strategy for children aged 2 and above. Make sure your child can understand the concept of rewards and has started to develop a better self-regulation of emotions. For some children, this may develop closer to 2.5-3 years.
If you’re taking away the dummy, you’ll need a good, structured and thought-through plan. As once it’s gone it’s not coming back! If it gets tough and you give in, returning the dummy, then sadly it only teaches the child to protest for longer and harder to get things back!
A few days before removal day, start telling your child that soon they will have to say bye-bye to their dummy. Then it won’t come as a big surprise. Let them know their favourite superhero or dummy fairy thinks they’re such a big girl/boy they don’t need it anymore and they’re getting something much better in return.
On the day the dummy is going, you could hang the dummy on a tree, then go and have some quiet time or an outing while the dummy fairy comes to take away the dummy for another baby who needs it. Equally the dummy can be put in the bin by the child and they can watch the waste collectors take it away in the big lorry. Either works. The aim is for them to understand it’s gone away and not at home any longer.
If using the dummy fairy or superhero approach then you can sprinkle some fairy or superhero dust around the base of the tree and leave a gift in return for the child to play with. Your child may need support for a few days, but keep reinforcing the positives, how proud you are, how nice the toy is they have in return, and that they’re such a big boy or girl. If they get really upset and keep asking for their dummy, respond with a simple ‘dummy’s all gone’ phrase (on repeat if need be) and use your best distraction techniques!
Article by Gemma Coe, The Baby and Child Sleep Specialist
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