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Sleeping Aids

The difference between what I call a ‘comforter’ and a ‘sleeping aid’ can be confusing at first because in essence, they are both aids to sleep, but they work in significantly different ways. Sleeping aids such as rocking, patting, feeding or giving your baby a dummy to suck on while going to sleep all require your attention and may become a problem for that reason. However, something that provides comfort and which the baby can easily find himself when he wakes in the middle of the night or between sleep cycles can be a parent’s best friend.

To dummy or not to dummy?

Giving your baby a dummy has its advantages and disadvantages and it is up to parents to decide which outweighs which in individual cases. What I can do is explain to you when I have recommended controlled dummy use to my clients, and why.

I call a dummy a ‘stretcher’, because I use it to stretch a baby when I am putting him on a new routine. I find this ‘controlled dummy use’ ideal when moving a baby from one routine to another or if a baby has reflux from feeding too often to help stretch his feeds out.

In my experience, dummies are a common cause of sleep problems. Of the parents who contact me about their baby waking every two hours during the night and catnapping during the day, 60 per cent are giving their child a dummy as a getting-to-sleep aid. Another ten per cent use other sleep aids, such as rocking, patting or feeding. There are seven reasons why a baby with a dummy wakes more frequently than one without.

• A baby with a dummy often finds it harder to achieve a deep sleep as their intermittent sucking will disturb their sleep pattern. Babies need sleep to grow and gain weight and an overtired baby will drink less milk because he associates sucking with falling asleep, so won’t suck the bottle or breast in case he starts to fall asleep. Often, babies will suck the breast or bottle until the point of falling asleep and then stop and scream, which is often mistaken for reflux.

• A baby who goes to sleep with a dummy will wake up expecting to suck, but if the dummy has fallen out he will shout for you to come and put it in again. Unfortunately, by the time you go in to replace the dummy, your baby may be so awake that it is hard for him to get back to sleep.

• The constant sucking can trick your baby’s body into thinking there is food coming, which causes him to digest the milk feed too fast and makes him hungrier than a baby without a dummy.

• Sucking can be hard work for some babies. When a baby realises he is not getting rewarded for his hard work with food, he may stop linking sucking with the reward of food, and subsequently refuse to suck when offered the breast or bottle.

• Dummy use can also interfere with speech development. If you watch a contented baby lying in his cot, he will be looking around and making babbling sounds. This is the baby’s first attempts at speech. A baby with a dummy, however, will be concentrating on sucking and will not be looking around or babbling. Also, take notice of what it says on the label of most dummies, as many manufacturers advise you to never leave your baby unattended with a dummy in case they chew off the top and choke on or swallow it.

• Babies who suck on dummies are at higher risk of ear infections, which may lead to high fevers and the need for antibiotics, both of which have their own side effects.

• A dummy can mask other problems. If a baby is crying and will not settle there is a usually a reason, and a dummy can make this difficult to determine. Often when a baby finishes his feed a parent will pop a dummy in straight away, as the baby is unsettled. Oftentimes, the baby is crying because he needs more milk or has wind.

Some research suggests dummy use reduces the risk of SIDS, but for me the problems associated with using a dummy outweigh this possible benefit.

In my opinion, the most important thing you can ever teach your baby is how to self-settle, enabling your baby to drift from one sleep cycle to the next without your help – or the aid of a dummy – to resettle. Discouraging dependency on any aid at bedtime can be difficult initially but I think it is well worthwhile in the end.

Tip: Before giving a crying baby a dummy, make sure nothing is wrong in the first place. A dummy might mask a problem.


A comforter is what I class as a ‘good’ aid, something your baby uses to go to sleep but that he does not need your help with between sleep cycles. Every baby uses an aid of some sort to comfort himself with just before he goes to sleep but unless parents have introduced the aid themselves, they are usually unaware of just what it is (with the exception of thumb-sucking). An unintroduced comforter could be holding, rubbing or playing peek-a-boo with the sheets or blankets, but sometimes it can be a little more complicated. I have seen babies play with the bars in their cots just before falling asleep which can cause a problem when you ask them to fall asleep in a travel cot or anywhere away from their beloved cot bars. Another common comforter is playing with labels or tags on bedding or clothing.

Luke’s story

Up until ten months old, Luke had always been a good sleeper, having been started on my routines at five weeks old. At ten weeks he started to sleep all night and had done so nearly every night since. But suddenly at ten months he was finding it hard to go to sleep and, once asleep, was waking up crying several times throughout the night. I consulted with Luke’s parents several times over the phone but we couldn’t work out what the problem was, so a house visit was the only option.

After Luke was put to bed, I decided to sneak into his room on all fours and observe him. At first, things appeared okay and Luke was lying down looking ready for sleep. As I watched I noticed a funny movement of his hand. He was putting his fingers down as though trying to scratch his wrist before becoming frustrated and starting to cry. It was not the cry of a baby fighting sleep but of a tearful and genuinely upset baby. I picked him up and went to talk to his parents. After a few minutes we realised he was looking for the sleeves of his winter pyjamas but, as he was now in short sleeves for summer, he couldn’t find them anywhere. It was now obvious what Luke’s problem had been. We put Luke back in long sleeves and he started sleeping through the night again.

Luke’s story was a clear case of a baby who was comforting himself to sleep using an aid that the parents were totally unaware of. It is also a good example of why it is better for parents to choose their baby’s comforter for them so they know what it is, but the comforter can be just about anything so long as it is safe with him in his cot.

Choosing a comforter

There are a few things to be aware of when introducing a comforter to your baby:

• Make sure your baby can still breathe if the comforter gets over his face (I suggest cotton muslin squares, or one of the Save Our Sleep® comforters)

• Make sure your baby cannot get the comforter tangled around his neck (about 35 cm square is a good size for muslin squares).

• Soft toys are not the same as comforters.

• When choosing a comforter, please avoid ones with bean fillings or long fur that your baby might pull out and accidentally inhale. Pull at the fur a little to see how easily it comes away. (Some companies specialise in making baby comforters. They have usually conducted a lot of research into the best comforter features for you and your baby. For safe examples please look in the Save Our Sleep online store.)

• I also recommend that you have more than one comforter, and that they are machine washable. This means you can rotate and wash them periodically as well as ensuring you have a back-up in the event of loss or damage.

Tricks of the trade

There are also a few tricks to introducing a comforter to your baby. Try starting with mum putting it down her top for a few hours (interesting look with a teddy head!) to allow her smell to infiltrate it. Then place the comforter in the cot near baby’s face so he can turn and snuggle into it; it is amazing to watch a baby take solace from their comforter.

It is my experience that babies with comforters are much happier and more secure as they progress through certain milestones in their lives. For instance, at about nine months babies often become very clingy to mum when they realise they are individuals and not a part of their mothers; a comforter seems to help with this transition. Comforters also help babies learn to sleep in different places such as the car, pram and travel cots while on holidays or at day care. And research published recently in Germany suggests that toddlers feel much more secure if they have a comforter with them for the first few visits at kinder or day care. I also support this notion but recommend weaning your child off taking it once they are settled. I also firmly recommend that a comforter is only given to a baby at sleep times or on occasions when some additional comfort is required, such as a visit to hospital or the doctor. In my opinion, it is not good for children or babies to be carrying their comforter around all day. My reason for this is if the comforter is carried around all the time it will no longer help a younger child recognise it as a going to bed signal and it will not help the older child with new milestones such as the first day at school because they are used to having it with them all the time.

It is common, at about ten months, for the comforter to start getting thrown out of the cot. The first time it happens could be an accident, so walk in without making eye contact or talking and very calmly return it to the cot. If this becomes a ritual, the baby is probably game-playing. I suggest parents in these situations explain to their baby that if they throw the comforter out it will stay there and they won’t have it to sleep with. If the behaviour continues, don’t go in straightaway but instead wait until you feel your baby has realised their comforter might not be coming back. Then walk in without eye contact or talking and give it back. Each time wait considerably longer and the game will soon stop.

Teaching a dummy-dependent baby to self-settle

If you decide to remove the dummy, there are steps I recommend you follow in order to take it away and teach your baby to self-settle. First, I recommend you adhere as closely as possible to the proven 24-hour routine for your baby’s age for a minimum of four days before you attempt to take the dummy away. Then on the fifth day, at the first sleep of the day, remove the dummy and follow my settling guide for your baby’s age. You should throw all her dummies in the bin to ensure you are not tempted to use them again – even outside sleep times. Giving a baby their dummy outside sleep times will only cause confusion.

If your baby has a dummy but you rock, pat or feed your baby to get her to sleep, just take the dummy away on the first day of the routine, then take the other aid away on the fifth day. The reason for this is if your baby was really using the dummy as a sleep aid you would not need to help her with the second aid as well, so your baby is unlikely to be dependent on the dummy to go to sleep.


Tizzie Hall is a best selling parenting Author and International Baby Whisperer for more information please visit or the Save Our Sleep Destination store Ocean Grove.

Tizzie Hall

The International Baby Whisperer 2013

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