Dilemmas: Should baby suck a dummy?

Sheila's baby cries all the time, and is only comforted by a dummy. But her mother-in-law says it'll deform the baby's teeth, her husband says it looks awful, and Sheila herself has heard that dummies are a health hazard. What should she do?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

Fashions in bringing up babies change like hemlines. In 1910 Sir Truby King recommended that to stop thumb-sucking, the best plan was to put the babies' arms in splints of corrugated cardboard. In 1970 a Mrs Frankenburg wrote that the "continuous sucker of a dummy is fortunate if he does not become a chain-smoker, a drunkard or a drug-addict". (Personally I would have thought it was the other way round, that those who don't have things to suck on need sucky things in later life.) In 1975 Dr Hugh Jolly said he would prefer a baby who requires extra sucking to do it the natural way - "by sucking his thumb".

These days most baby books are perfectly easy about dummies, and thumb- sucking. But the bang-up-to-date research on dummies is confusing. It shows that the sucking promotes more saliva, which prevents plaque building up, and that there's no problem with teeth as long as children stop sucking dummies before six years old. Other research shows that dummy-suckers tended to have more infections than other babies, but needless to say no one has sorted out whether this is because dummies tend to be used in families where mothers are young, broke and poorly educated, and smoke.

So there you have it. Sheila's mind is probably boggling.

But there's a bigger issue here, about taking advice when you're bringing up children. It seems to me that Sheila knows perfectly what's right for her baby. The dummy soothes it and comforts it. But her intuitive motherly feelings have been undermined by two people who clearly don't have the baby's emotional interests at heart.

First, her mother-in-law, who can hardly know the baby as well as Sheila and who seems more concerned with the baby's looks than with its emotional welfare. Even if the teeth theory were true, which it isn't, better a buck-toothed baby full of beans than a perfect misery with a perfect mouth. Second, Sheila's husband, who seems to have inherited his mother's obsession with looks, says that dummies look awful. Most face-furniture does. But he surely wouldn't suggest his child stop wearing glasses, if it had to later, just on the grounds of vanity? I suspect class comes into all this. My mother never gave me a dummy because she said they were "common". But babies, thank God, have no class distinctions. If they can't find their thumbs, they often want a dummy when they're miserable.

Children aren't furniture kits from Ikea. There are no instructions a mother can follow, except her own gut feelings. When Sheila asks for advice, she knows the answer. She wants reassurance that her own instinctive feelings are right. So my advice is to trust her own judgement.

"Expert advice will not aid a parent unless he has the appropriate inner experiences," wrote the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. "Such advice may even prevent him from engaging in the laborious task of discovering the causes of his child's difficulties, and in the process discovering things about his own life and being which bring him that much closer to his child and the child to him. The right inner experience ...will reveal how superficial and impersonal even the best advice is when applied to a complex situation caused by highly personal feelings."

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

A dummy is the answer

Before I had my first baby, I too despised the "common" dummy. However, within two weeks of putting my bundle of joy on the breast every two hours, I had succumbed.

Yes, they do look awful, but so do new mums with bags under the eyes and nursing bras left undone "to save time".

Two babies later I was still converted. Teeth are straight, unlike mine and my brother's, (our mother looked down on dummies, so we sucked thumb and forefinger respectively). You can throw away a dummy when a baby is 18 months old; unfortunately you cannot throw away thumbs, and they can stay planted into the teens.

FIONA CARRIVICK

Isleworth, Middlesex

They're better than thumbs

I sucked my thumb until I was about 13 or 14, and found it extraordinarily hard to break the habit - my thumb, after all, was on the end of my hand, and always accessible, so I often sucked it without being even conscious of my actions. I am now, at 42, still undergoing dental treatment (private and expensive) to put right dental defects.

My youngest daughter had a dummy. It pacified her and turned her from a screaming, irritable baby into a contented, calm little girl. When she was about two-and-a-half, we told her that her dummy had "gone on holiday", sent her a couple of postcards to that effect, and that was the end of that! How many 12-year-olds do you see still sucking a dummy?

ALEX CARLYLE-PRICE

Just sterilise it!

I understand that the latest advice is that thumb-sucking is worse for teeth than a dummy, and that neither is a disaster as long as it doesn't continue for too long. Properly sterilised, a dummy is no worse and indeed a good deal better than most other things that will find their way into your baby's mouth.

KIM MOLNAR

Preston, Lancashire

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My girlfriend read a book on relationships and we decided to be more honest with each other. I told her about two girls I'd had long affairs with and loved, in the past. She told me she still felt a bit in love with her old boyfriend, which really upset me. She also said she didn't think I had a sense of humour. I told her that although I loved her, I wished she'd lose weight. Obviously we told each other good things as well, but my girlfriend is still hurt about my past affairs. The idea was to make us feel closer, but we're further apart. I feel stupid that we took advice from a book, and confused about honesty. How honest should you be?

Yours sincerely, Dennis

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from .Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet

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