Dummies and Social Class


Mother and Baby magazine calls them “the most loathsome invention in the history of parenting” (Askamum 2011). Gill (2002) described them as “an unnecessary, unwanted intrusion in the mouths of babies and toddlers”. Dummies, pacifiers, soothers, call them what you will, almost everyone has an opinion on them. How are parents who give dummies to their children perceived by Joe Public? Is dummy-use widely associated with a certain class of people?

Sixty eight percent of parents give dummies to their babies before 6 weeks of age (AAP 2011). The use of dummies originates as far back as the 15th century when they were known under the label of “sympathetic magic”. Comforters consisting of small linen bags filled with bread, milk and sugar were used to nourish and calm children in the late 19th century. By 1909 dummy-use was already starting to be associated with the “poorer classes” and with poor hygiene (New York Times 1909). This view persists into the present day where dummy-use is associated with working-class mothering (North Stone et al 2000) which, in itself, is associated with perceptions of inadequate parenting
(Gillies. V 2005a; Gillies. V 2005b; Skeggs, 1997). A study published on Mumsnet this year looked at the use of dummies and society’s view of them.


A questionnaire was carried out for one day in each of the following UK town/city centres; Leamington Spa, Nuneaton, Coventry and Sutton Coldfield (All midlands based).

On average, about 100 individuals of all ages and sexes from each location were surveyed. When the results from all locations were collated theses were the main findings:

67% of people surveyed thought children with dummies in public looked common.

70% of this 67% were themselves not parents.

87% thought children allowed to have dummies beyond the age of three or four years old in public not only looked awful, but also suggested poor parenting.

95% thought dummies used with babies was perfectly fine, but not with toddlers.

59% thought dummies are used more for the parent’s convenience rather than the child’s.

Of the 59% above with this opinion, 76% claimed they felt dummy use was more commonly seen with single mums, with a few kids in tow where dummies are dished out for a quiet life.

47% said they associated dummy use more with lower class than middle and upper class parents.

92% with this opinion above were not themselves parents.

The researchers were particularly interested in why so many people thought dummies were vile and common, and why they associated them with less financially well off families. They attempted to find out if there was any real grounds to support this class divide concerning dummy use. The researchers spent a day at three different locations to monitor the frequency of observations for children with dummies. At each location they tried to record the total amount of children with and without dummies. Additional to this, the researchers trawled round each location collecting dummies off the floor (the ones you see lying around that get lost by children).

The results of this crude monitoring supported the opinion about dummy use being more prevalent in lower class society when compared to upper class. This time the general findings were:

It was observed that there was definitely more children with dummies at the designated lower class location compared to middle and upper class locations.

It was also observed at the lower class location that the ratio of children to parent/caregiver was higher than the other locations.

Children up to the age of 4 or 5 (estimation) were commonly seen with dummies at the designated lower class site, but virtually absent from the other locations used.

The total number of lost dummies found at the end of the day at each location was; lower-class 27, middle-class 9 and upper-class 2.

These findings correlate with larger scale studies which have shown that “mothers were more likely to give their child a pacifier if they were younger, had lower levels of education, experienced greater financial difficulties or lived in council housing” (North Stone. K et al 2000; See also Gale and Martyn 1996; North et al 1999; Illingworth. R 1991). One medical practitioner (Hawkins. MF 1961) has maintained that mothers who give their offspring dummies are “invariably unintelligent”. Academics have also linked the use of dummies with single mothering (McNally 1997).

It is clear from the research that dummy-use is seen as a symbol of inadequate working-class mothering. However why are working class mothers more likely to give dummies to their children? I hypothesise:

Because of poor education

It would appear that the general public view dummy-use by babies as acceptable but use by non-babies as undesirable. This view may be fuelled by health concerns. Dummy-use until a baby is one year old has been linked to a decrease in the risk of cot death (Fleming. P.J. 1999). Whereas dummies used into toddlerhood and beyond have been linked to speech delay and tooth misalignment (Hebling. S et al 2008). Working class parents are less likely to be aware of such information (Brown. K and Bottrill. I, 1999). Their lifestyle is generally associated with a lack of education. The situation is exacerbated by the poor training of frontline health care professionals. One study showed that only 20% of mothers receive information from health visitors about the disadvantages of dummies (Witmarch. J. 2008), which means that the majority of mothers are required to use their own research skills to facilitate their choice. The lower down the social class hierarchy a parent is, the less access they have to research facilities.

Because working class mothers are less likely to breastfeed

In addition to the risk of latex allergy, tooth decay, oral ulcers, ear infections, colic and sleep disorders (Cinar. DN. 2004; Dr Greene 2011; North Stone. K et al 2000) dummy-use can also sabotage breastfeeding (The Alpha Parent 2011). Thus, the relationship between dummy-use and working class mothers may be explained in part by the fact that working class mothers are less likely to breastfeed (The Independent 2001; Marie Claire 2011).

Because dummies infantilize children

‘Good mothering’ is often associated with helping ones child to progress and develop. It follows that infantilizing a non-infant suggests bad mothering. Giving dummies to toddlers and older children can be viewed as a form of infantilization.

Because they are cheap

You can purchase not one but two dummies for the economic price of one pound sterling from a range of reputable outlets including Poundland, Home Bargains, Aldi and Lidl. Or you could obtain a five fingered discount if you’re that way inclined.

Because they are bling

We all know the chav-obsession with pimping up any object that is to be seen in public. Dummies are no exception. Beads, gems, faux-diamonds are all added. If a rear spoiler could be added it would. But we know better don’t we? (Safety first!)

Because they are convenient

Dummy use, formula feeding, disposable nappies, sleep training and spoon weaning. What do all of these parenting choices have in common? Answer: assumed convenience. They are commonly viewed (often incorrectly) as the ‘easy solution’. Parents who take easy solutions are seen as less- conscientious and to some extent, lazy. One Mumsnet member commented that “dummies are used by parents who just aren’t prepared to put the extra effort in with their child” (Mumsnet 2009). The perception that dummy-using parents are lazy is correlated by academics (Haughton 1997). General discourse surrounding good mothering identifies maternal need as congruent with that of the child. As Witmarch. J (2008) observed, “good mothers are constructed without any needs of their own”.

Because they are a mothering substitute

It could be argued that when distressed, babies should be comforted in the arms of their parents, rather than their distress plugged with a silicone nipple. Research has shown that babies given dummies are less likely to receive mental stimulation, encouragement to explore and learn, and parental attention (Alic. M 2011).

Because they are unhygienic

Several studies have revealed that pacifiers are often colonized with Candida and bacterial organisms (Ollila P et al. 1997; Sio JO et al 1987; Mattos-Graner RO et al 2001). Much professional literature (see for example, McNally 1997; North Stone et al 2000) link dummies with the spread of infection and poor hygiene. Until your baby is weaned onto solids, dummies should be sterilised in the same way as you sterilise bottles. After this, thorough cleaning is enough to ensure the dummy is safe to use. And no, sucking the dummy yourself then passing it to your baby doesn’t count, no matter what your MIL may advise.

But wait: The advantages of dummy-use

If you’re reading this and you give your child a dummy, do not despair. You can justify your usage with these timely pro-dummy facts.

  • Giving a baby a dummy when they go to sleep may reduce their risk of cot death by 90% (BBC News 2005). Some researchers say this is because they prevent babies from cutting off their air supply by keeping their airways open. Others suggest that sucking on a dummy may enhance the development of pathways in the brain that control how airways in the upper respiratory system work.
  • Dummies can help premature, tube fed babies to establish feeding and thus leave hospital earlier (Baby Centre 2011).
  • Dummy-use reduces the likelihood that a baby will become a ‘thumb sucker’ and it is far easier to wean a baby off a dummy than it is their thumb. Studies have maintained that dummy-use is preferable to thumb-sucking (Adair 2003). Aside from being a harder habit to break, thumb sucking can do more damage to the dental structures of a baby’s mouth.
  • Dummies can help babies with reflux. They “stimulate the flow of saliva and downward contractions of the esophagus; these actions help to more quickly move the highly irritating stomach fluid back where it belongs” (Morelli. J 2000).
  • Dummies may reduce the risk of overfeeding for bottle fed babies as they satisfy a baby’s need for non-nutritive sucking.
  • Dummies are transitional objects that help children adjust to new situations and relieves stress.
  • Dummies can soothe babies to sleep and help them to stay asleep when disturbed.
  • Dummies can provide relief for teething and other physical discomforts. The act of sucking releases hormones which function as pain relief (Sexton. S and Natale. R 2009; Zempsky WT, Cravero JP, 2004).
  • Dummies may aid your baby’s immune system. Recent research suggests that the time-honored practice of parents sucking dummies to ‘clean’ them before passing them to their babies could ward off allergies (Stein 2013).


So with advantages and disadvantages to dummy-use, what should parents do? Chris Evans (BBC Radio 2) summed up the dilemma as follows:

“You stick a dummy in, the kid calms down and doesn’t get half a feed on mummy’s tired booby. Instead he works his chompers off getting proper hungry for the next time and tires himself out enough for a proper sleep in the process.

But then again, he becomes reliant on it, may communicate less and as a result and could become addicted to cigars later on in life.

If one chooses not to dummy then casual grazing continues with no real patterns and routines being shaped, the baby’s always tired, mummy’s always tired and he may take to sucking his thumb anyway.

What do we do people?”

Doctor and baby

Ultimately whether or not dummies are right for your child depends on your particular circumstances. My advice is to consider whether your baby is premature or full term, whether you breastfeed, whether you wish to use dummies only at times of physical pain such as vaccinations, whether your baby is satisfied sucking at mealtimes or whether they need non-nutritive sucking in between meals, and whether your baby has trouble settling any other way. The most important consideration according to medical research is your baby’s age. “Pacifier-use may be especially beneficial in the first six months of life. However, the risks begin to outweigh the benefits around six to 10 months of age and appear to increase after two years of age” (Sexton. S and Natale. R 2009).