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Dummies and breastfeeding: yes or no?

Dummy, pacifier, binky, tietie – call it what you will, it’s one of the most hotly debated topics in breastfeeding circles. Some women swear they could never cope without them, others issue dire warnings of how a dummy will mean the end of breastfeeding. The World Health Organization feels strongly enough about the dangers of dummies that they recommend they should be avoided altogether, while the American Association of Pediatrics recommends using a dummy for SIDS prevention. What’s a mom to do with all these conflicting viewpoints?!

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The rationale behind dummies

Babies have a strong urge to suck: it’s how they regulate their body systems and their emotional condition. Babies will instinctively suck on just about anything – their hands, blankets, daddy’s cheek when he’s cuddling them. Sucking has suck a powerful calming effect on a baby that it can even be   used for pain relief during minor procedures.

In the past (and I’m talking the fairly distant past here!), babies met all these suckling needs at their mothers’ breasts. In fact, even in some relatively modern “primitive” societies, babies are carried in wraps on their mothers’ chests and allowed to suckle as often as they want to. But somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of creating an artificial nipple to replace the mom’s breast. This was the birth of the dummy.

Dummies, in my opinion, are a perfect tool if you have a formula-fed baby. They allow you to keep baby calm between feeds and to settle baby into a routine. If you’re on a schedule of “so-many-ml of formula every so-many-hours, a dummy is not only useful but essential. The question is, though: how does this translate to breastfeeding babies?

Dummies and breastfeeding

This is where the dividing lines are drawn; the “pro-dummy” vs. “anti-dummy” camps. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle, in the “use dummies but don’t consider them to be essential” camp. No doubt they are super useful, but there are some risks to keep in mind:

Risks for milk supply and milk intake

The biggest risk of dummies is that they can interfere with getting your milk supply established. The reason is simply this: whenever a newborn baby wants to suck, he needs to breastfeed. If you give a dummy instead of the breast, you are calming baby down – but he’s is not getting the milk that he needs and your breasts are not being stimulated. This can lead to problems for both you and baby. In baby’s case, he may lose excessive amounts of weight, or not gain enough weight, with all the problems that entails. In your case, the lack of stimulation may cause low milk supply. This is especially critical in the first 6 weeks or so, when your body is still figuring out how much milk to make – a lack of stimulation in this time can lead to a low milk supply that is very difficult to increase later on. And it doesn’t matter how old baby is, if you use a dummy to delay feeds at any age, you are risking poor weight gain and malnutrition. It’s like chewing gum when you’re hungry.

Risks for latch, nipple confusion and sore nipples

Another problem with dummies is that they teach baby a “lazy latch”. Basically, they teach baby to suck with a mouth that is not wide open. If baby tries to suck like that on the breast, he will end up latching only on to the nipple – this will cause sore nipples for you and make it difficult for baby to get milk out of the breast effectively. Again, this is most critical in the first 6 weeks or so, when baby is still figuring out how to latch and suck properly. Once breastfeeding is well established and baby is latching comfortably, the dummy is much less likely to be a problem.

Risk of thrush

Dummies are associated with increased oral thrush in baby. The reason is pretty obvious: the thrush spores live and breed on the dummy. And it’s not so easy to just clean it – have you ever tried to get that stubborn bit of water out of the teat? The best way I know of to manage this risk is to heat-sterilize your dummies by boiling, steaming or microwave-sterilising; sterilizing solutions do not kill thrush, no matter what the manufacturers claim.

But what about SIDS?

You may have read the guideline that says babies who sleep with a pacifier are at lower risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or cot death). That is broadly true, but in itself it’s not a reason to use a dummy from day one. SIDS is very rare in infants younger than one month; in fact, it peaks at two to four months of age. That leaves you plenty of time to establish breastfeeding before introducing a dummy. Your baby should then only use a dummy at sleep times, not as a tool to stretch the times between feeds.

Also remember the “big three” when it comes to SIDS prevention: breastfeed, don’t smoke, and put baby to sleep on his back. If you do those three things, your baby’s risk for SIDS is very low even without using a dummy.

Guidelines for dummy use

Remember, a dummy is not a necessity; your baby will not suffer any harm if he never takes a dummy. However, many parents still opt to use a dummy for SIDS prevention or for convenience sake. From my own experience, I know that if baby is in day care or if you need to travel significant distances in the car, a dummy can save your sanity!

There are ways to reduce the risks of any negative effects from using a dummy. Here are some guidelines on the intelligent use of a dummy:

  • Most importantly, wait until breastfeeding is well established before you introduce the dummy, so that you avoid any negative impact on your milk supply or on baby’s suck. This generally takes about 6 weeks. I would suggest waiting until after the 6-weeks growth spurt is over.
  • Never force baby to take a dummy, or coat the dummy with something sweet to entice baby to take it.
  • Use the dummy for sleep times. If baby spits the dummy out while asleep, do not force it back into his mouth.
  • Never use the dummy to stretch the time between feeds. If baby is hungry, baby needs milk. Giving a dummy to a hungry baby will result in poor weight gain and a reduction in your milk supply.

If you follow these guidelines, the risk that using a dummy will interfere with your breastfeeding journey is minimal.

Did you give your breastfeeding baby a dummy? Did it have any effect on your breastfeeding journey? Tell me about it by leaving a comment below!

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