Readers, I have a confession to make. It is something I expect Society will disapprove of. It will certainly be frowned upon, if not judged very negatively, by most. I’m just going to spit it out: Little Bear still has a dummy.
I suspect this is controversial for two reasons. Firstly because Little Bear is 5, on the nearer to six side of things, and typically children give up their dummies whilst still pre-schoolers. Secondly, because I, his mother, am a Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) who not only should know better but should be militantly opposed to dummies full stop.
It may make me a rubbish SaLT (I’ll take the chance) but I am not opposed to dummies. I certainly think they have their uses. Big Bear had one (ok, about nine) and was particularly attached to them, often sleeping with one in his mouth and one in his hand.
Initially, I tried extremely hard not to give him one, thinking it would make me a bad parent (as well as a bad therapist) if I did. However, after about 7 weeks of following the NHS guidance to demand feed, I had been feeding Big Bear around the clock and when I wasn’t doing that he was latching on to anything and everything (my arm, Grizzly’s nose etc.). I had to acquiesce to save my sanity, as well as my nipples.
Looking back, there are so many things to beat yourself up about as a new parent that I genuinely don’t think a dummy should be one of them. There are two main risks with dummy use: the impact on the infant’s teeth and the impact on their speech. Unless a child is plugged in constantly (wrong on many levels), an average amount of dummy-use is really only damaging to speech if a child speaks with the dummy in their mouth*. I have found that fairly easily solved with a ‘no talking with your dummy in’ rule, which I do stick to religiously. It hasn’t hampered either Bear from being a chatterbox. The dummy hasn’t stopped them talking, they have just got used to taking it out of their mouths to do so.
As Big Bear approached three years of age, his speech was developing well but I began to notice a change in his teeth. They were starting to angle outwards a little. It was obvious it was the dummy and it had to go. Although I knew he didn’t need it, I did know that he liked it A LOT and I was pretty trepidatious about the big withdrawal. Exactly how many nights would he scream for?!
I knew cold-turkey was really the only way but I wanted him to be as prepared as possible. We talked about dummy fairies and invented some sort of fable about what good purpose they put discarded dummies to (I can’t quite remember the details). I’m not ashamed to say we also used a good portion of bribery – those dummy fairies give a good reward! We left all the dummies outside on a plate on the allocated day (because clearly the fairies live outdoors) and the next morning a Lego truck had magically appeared in their place. The deed was done.
In reality we had one or two nights of Big Bear struggling to get to sleep but there was none of the fuss and palaver I had imagined. The big dummy withdrawal was, dare I say, pretty easy.
Several years later when we were in the process of Matching with Little Bear, it transpired that at the age of three and a half, he still had a dummy. Tut, tut, we said. How awful! He really should be rid of it by now! Just give it to the dummy fairies: how hard could it be?!
In our naivety I think we even suggested the Foster Carer’s should do the deed before he came to us.
The outrage! A three and a half year old with a dummy!
Yet, here we are, over two years later, the three and a half year old is now nearly six and he still has the dummy. So what has gone wrong?
Have I been too chicken this time?
No. Not too chicken. A little older, a little wiser and a LOT more tuned in. I haven’t taken Little Bear’s dummy away because he still needs it. Along with his blanket, it is the only thing that is guaranteed to calm him.
Usually the dummy and blanket live in his bedroom and Little Bear only has them after his bedtime stories when the light is going off. Most of the time he half forgets about them and can fall asleep without them. However, there are still days when he pads sheepishly downstairs with them, lays curled in the foetal position on the sofa and disappears off into his calm place for a couple of hours. If I didn’t let Little Bear have his dummy on that sort of day, he would prowl about, itchy, discontented and ill at ease. He would seek trouble, struggle with instruction and generally have a very difficult day. The relief and release when he gets the dummy is almost palpable.
When Little Bear was younger/ newer to our family we daren’t go on any car journey without the dummy and blanket secreted in my handbag “just in case”. There were months when they were literally the only way to calm him (though there was also a risk he’d lob it at your head).
We have many more available and effective calming strategies now and don’t take the dummy anywhere any more (apart from on holiday). However, when Little Bear starts wandering around the house with it, it is the equivalent of a red warning light. It means that Little Bear is not feeling good. We might not know why and neither may he, but it alerts us that he needs something different today. It generally means he needs few demands, lots of TV, cheesy pasta for tea, somebody to feed it to him and an early night. As yet, Little Bear can’t communicate this to us any other way so we have to rely on the medium of dummy interpretation. He has a wide enough vocabulary now but I don’t think he can pinpoint how he feels, let alone interpret the feeling enough to be able to voice it.
Although these are all valid points, there is something else, more fundamental, that is holding me back.
The dummy and blanket are the only things I can think of that Little Bear has always had. They have travelled with him (one assumes) from his birth family to foster care and from there to us, providing him with a reliable and consistent source of comfort along the way. Perhaps I should say that they are the only reliable and consistent source of comfort he has ever had. You would usually anticipate that the reliable and consistent source of comfort would be your Mum or Dad but as Little Bear has had three different ones of each and not one of them has accompanied him on his whole journey, he has had no choice but to seek an alternative source.
How can I, hand on heart, take away that consistent and reliable source of comfort? I genuinely don’t think that I can or, more importantly, that I should. Having had so little control over what has happened in his life I think I can hand over the reins of this one to Little Bear himself.
I know that Society will stand in judgement, as I too probably would have done a few years ago. I know Society will consider him too old and my behaviour in allowing it to be atypical. I have decided that I care not one jot. Sometimes I make that type of decision quietly. What wider Society doesn’t know about won’t bother them. However, if I really don’t care what anyone thinks and I genuinely believe I am acting with the best of intentions, why should I hide it? Society needs to become accepting of the fact that not all children follow a typical pattern of development and therefore will not adhere to the rigid expectations we set out, whether anybody likes it or not.
Last week I read a blog on a similar theme, though it was about using a baby carrier with a three year old, and I realised this type of age-related pigeonholing is happening left, right and Chelsea (It was written by @LivingtheTheory and you can read it here: http://living-the-theory.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/thats-no-no-now-hes-getting-bigger.html ) Can we please quit it with the chronological age expectations and think developmental needs? So what if a toddler still needs to be close to his Mum when they are out and about? So what if my 5 year old still needs me to feed him sometimes? So what if a sixteen year old with severe learning difficulties still wants to carry a teddy around? So what if a ten year old still needs a pull-up at night? So what? All children have different needs. I’m not sure we need to get our knickers in a twist about it.
I have no idea how long Little Bear is going to need his dummy and blanket. I don’t think it is something I can set an age-related target for. Will he still have it when he’s a grown man? Somehow I doubt it.
*The main impact on speech of having a dummy is that children talk around it and inevitably start to form some of their speech sounds incorrectly. It is usually the tongue-tip sounds that are affected the most as the dummy prevents the tongue tip from reaching the alveolar ridge (the flat hard ridge behind your top teeth) , a place it needs to be in order to make accurate t, s, l, n, d, z sounds. A tell-tale sign of too much dummy use is the presence of a process called ‘backing’ in a child’s speech. The front sound ‘t’ is made at the back instead, so it sounds like ‘k’. Everywhere a child should use a ‘t’, they will use a ‘k’, so ‘tea’ sounds like ‘key’ etc.
Dummy use isn’t the sole cause of this process, it could just happen anyway, but it is not a process usually seen in typical development so can be a red flag.
As Little Bear has Developmental Language Disorder, with accompanying speech disorder, I would be stupid to allow him to speak around his dummy. Interestingly, although he has had many atypical processes in his speech, backing has not been one of them.
However long a child needs their dummy, I do believe that speaking with it in is a massive no-no at any stage.
For the record I do care about Little Bear’s teeth too. He has regular checks at the dentist and so far they are lovely and straight (as are Big Bear’s adult teeth).