Breastfeeding – why your baby’s not ‘just using you as a dummy’ (and the dummy debate)

You’re stuck on the couch having the life sucked out of you by the tiny person latched onto your breast as though his life depends on you (actually, it kind of does right now!). Being needed so intensely is making you feel overwhelmed, and now you’re totally confused by the unhelpful comments being tossed at you, including, ‘He’s just using you as a dummy’. And you wonder, am I really just a human dummy? Should I just give my baby a ‘real’ dummy?

Sucking is a comfort to babies; it helps them relax. In fact, your baby quite possibly sucked his fingers even before he was born. After his birth, your baby will need to suck often to practise the skill needed to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing, all of which are needed for him to become an effective little feeder.

If you surrender to your baby’s intense needs now, he’ll learn more quickly, so soon his feeds will be much shorter as he becomes a more efficient feeder. Meanwhile, try making feeding times ‘me’ times by setting up a comfortable feeding station. Keep a basket full of things to nurture and comfort yourself close at hand, including healthy snacks, a water bottle, breast pads, phone, a book or magazine to read, and a pen and pad to jot lists on if you don’t keep notes in your phone. You can also use the time to catch up with a DVD series of your favourite TV program. All these things mean you’ll be able to enjoy this precious time, instead of feeling restless and resentful.

In the early days, your baby will often indicate that he wants the breast – nature’s most convenient pacifier – by ‘rooting’ (turning his head towards the breast and making grasping movements with his mouth), even when he isn’t really hungry. Some mothers may find it disconcerting to have a baby who wants to be almost constantly ‘attached’, but be reassured: as he gets used to the world and his movements become more controlled, and he’s able to find his own fingers to suck on, he won’t rely on nursing as a form of comfort as much.

Of course, a bit of finger-sucking can bring more criticism from others, and advice that you should give your baby a dummy because ‘you can get rid of a dummy, but you can’t get rid of a thumb’. Again, you can relax – a bit of finger-sucking can simply be a baby exploring, or doing some self-soothing if Mum has an abundant milk supply. And usually, as they become mobile, babies will stop finger-sucking – they’ve got to explore their surroundings, and will have much more exciting things to do than sit around sucking their thumbs all day!

If your baby self-soothes through almost continuous finger-sucking, however, it’s worth considering if it’s a way of making up for comfort he could perhaps get from you in other ways – for instance, with a cuddle, some focussed attention, distraction to avert boredom or discomfort, or to help your him relax at sleep time.

Offering a dummy may buy you some short-term relief at times when your baby seems inconsolable, or it may be helpful if he’s an unsettled baby generally. But before you offer it to him, it’s worth considering the potential disadvantages:

  •  Dummies/teats require a different sucking action from nipples, so offering a dummy in the early weeks, before breastfeeding is well established, may create or exacerbate breastfeeding difficulties, such as effective latching. If your baby is unsettled and has had a good feed but seems to want to suck, you could try offering him your clean finger to suck on (often just a few minutes of this will help him calm and settle). A finger holds your baby’s tongue flat, in a similar position to breastfeeding, while a dummy encourages a ‘thrusting’ tongue action.
  • There are no calories in a dummy. Inadvertently popping a dummy in when your baby is actually trying to signal hunger, or in order to ‘stretch out feeds’, can have a negative effect on his weight gain and your own milk supply.
  • In the long run, dummies can turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth, as some babies who sleep with dummies are woken – and start crying – every time the dummy slips out. For this reason, if you do use a dummy to help your baby drift off, it’s wise to use it sparingly, and to remove it once he’s fallen asleep. This way he won’t be disturbed if it slides from his mouth while he’s sleeping.
  • If you do decide to use a dummy and find it helps to comfort your baby, watch his cues: if he spits it out, don’t keep plugging him up again, as you run the risk of blocking his only means of communication. He may want his needs met in other ways, such as being fed, played with or talked to.

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best selling baby care author based in Melbourne, Australia.  For more breastfeeding information, check out Pinky’s ebook and recording bundle  Breastfeeding Simply.

  1. Lola says

    Thank you for this post, Pinky. I am very conflicted about our dummy. My baby cried inconsolably for the first 2-3 months (good weight, nothing medically wrong) and I demand fed her round the clock, often in a dark room with the white noise CD, just to keep her calm. At 4 months, she suddenly accepted a dummy I tried in desperation one day. A few weeks later, I’m still using it to keep her calm enough to fall asleep in the cot… (previously she would scream when I put her down, even with marathon feeding/calming sessions). BUT it involves constantly replacing it as it drops out over and over as she’s falling asleep. I don’t know whether to get rid of it now and go back to the days of having her sleep on me only, or keep using it and hope she eventually gets the hang of it. I also now rely on it to be able to take her out in the pram or sling without hysterical screaming, but again, constant replacement. She’s 5 months old. WWPD?? ( What Would Pinky Do?)

  2. Lena says

    Every single midwife at clayton monash hospital told me to not let my baby use me as a dummy. I was fine with it but they made me feel incredibly guilty.. 🙁

    1. Pinky says

      sad comments from health professionals.

  3. Alice says

    Babies don’t use their mum as a surrogate dummy, they use their dummy as a surrogate mother -which is a lot more disturbing when you think about it.

  4. Crystal says

    I love my booby baby! 4 months old doesn’t like dummy’s (thank goodness) and has booby when HE wants it 🙂 teething is great as boob comfort him and my self when his unhappy 🙂

    1. Pinky says

      Lucky baby! You are doing a GREAT job!

  5. Lauren says

    My girl turned one last week and even though she now takes a bottle she still wants the boob for comfort I worry because she’s getting older is this a problem ?

    1. Jo says

      Lauren, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem. Meaning – are you and your baby both happy with your occasional comfort feed? Don’t worry about what others may say and enjoy this special bond now as one day your one year old will be all grown up, all too quickly 🙂 Your local ABA (Australian Breastfeeding Group) would be a great place to find in person support and like minded mamas if you desire. My 1 yo still breastfeeds a lot, including in public (no formula ever) and I love this special gift we have. Mostly I get positive comments but for those less positive comments i just state the facts and rattle off some benefits. At the end of the day we are but lactating mammals, designed to nourish our young with milk from our own bodies, just like other mammals. I also like to get people thinking when they suggest my toddler should be on “normal milk” or toddler formula (dirived from cows milk) because it’s “weird” to keep breastfeeding a baby over 1 year. Cows are mammals (like us) who produce milk for their offspring (like us). But we take away their calves and harvest their milk to drink ourselves and feed our young. As I am very fortunuate to be physically able to keep breastfeeding my older baby, why should I distrupt this beautiful , nurishing, convenient, immune boosting relationship to change to cows milk or formula? Why would I not feed my older baby my own precious, plentiful milk instead of that from another species? Now THAT is weird! I think the best thing to do when I get the occassional negative comment is not to have a battle of wits but rather just respectfully get them thinking, questioning and maybe seeing things from a more natural perspective.

  6. Jo says

    Lauren I went off on a tangent there! I also meant to say that breastfeeding for comfort is a perfectly natural and beautiful thing. It is magic stuff that can make most things all better! My 1yo might have a quick 5 second nurse when she bumps her head, for example, and this is not even enough to get my letdown ! But it connects us, grounds us and reassures my bub that she is safe with mama. I don’t see any problems with something so natural 🙂

  7. Chloe says

    Every single midwife at clayton monash hospital told me to not let my baby use me as a dummy. I was fine with it but they made me feel incredibly guilty.. 🙁

  8. […] Sucking is comforting to babies and helps them relax. However the different sucking action between breast and dummy may cause ‘nipple confusion’  in the early weeks. This  could influence your baby’s […]

  9. […] baby may be weaned by about three months. By restricting feeds or repeatedly spacing them out with dummies ( which, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, have no calories), you will not only reduce […]

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