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Views vary widely about when a child should stop using a dummy

When is the right time for a child to stop using a dummy? There are a wide variety of opinions among Abu Dhabi parents and doctors – and at least one famous Hollywood couple have a daughter still being photographed with her dummy only a month short of her fifth birthday.

For a little girl who has not yet reached her fifth birthday, Suri Cruise, is no stranger to controversy.

Whether she is tottering along in high heels and lipstick, staying out way past her bedtime to watch a Broadway show or having a wardrobe reportedly worth a whopping US$3 million (Dh11m), she's a favourite with the glossies.

Last month there were howls of protest after a baby's bottle was spotted on the table as she dined out with her parents, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. And now, a month shy of her fifth birthday, she has been photographed sucking on a bright red dummy during a day out with her mum in Vancouver, Canada. The fashionistas have jumped on her latest accessory but, so too, have the chattering classes, who have wasted no time in venting their spleen about Suri's soother and Cruise and Holmes's parenting skills.

The dummy debate is one of those subjects - one which polarises parents and causes endless discussion (often accompanied by a low groan).

So when should your child say goodbye to his or her dummy? And just how do you persuade your determined little darling that the time has arrived?

Most doctors and childcare specialists advise that a dummy should be restricted after six months and should not be used at all after a child is a year old, because of the damage that can be caused to teeth, jaws and the shape of the roof of the mouth, as well as inhibiting the development of language skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend little to no use after six months. Prolonged use can cause middle ear infections and an increased risk of vomiting, diarrhoea and colic. And while children can become dependent on them, there is also evidence that dummies interfere with breast-feeding.

Dr Gerald Brereton-Stiles, head of Al Noor Hospital's paediatric department in Abu Dhabi, says there are positives about pacifier use, as well as negatives.

"Using a dummy lifts pain thresholds for minor procedures like vaccinations and a pre-term baby can learn to suck quicker and better and, therefore, they put on weight better. And there is less incidence of SIDS [cot death] for babies who use a dummy," he says.

"If a child who screams is restless and unhappy and a pacifier calms them down and helps them sleep, then that is beneficial for everyone in the house.

"But early use can interfere with breast-feeding and over-use can cause middle ear infections and affect the dental structure, jaw alignment and speech.'

Dr Grace Eid, a paedodontist from the Advanced American Dental Center in Abu Dhabi, reiterates Brereton- Stiles's advice.

"When permanent teeth start to erupt you can have permanent skeletal and dental deformation and it is irreversible. The teeth can come forward and you can have crossbite. You can use braces, but it is very difficult.

"Talking about stopping it is the most important thing, then set a date and perhaps 'give' it away to a friend's new baby. Start discarding it at one year, if you can."

Many parents expecting their first child vow that their offspring will never have a dummy - until the reality of endless sleepless nights kicks in and they resort to that little silicone soother.

And, as many a parent will tell you, ending your child's love affair with a comforter is no easy task. Although the advice is to stop use by one year, back in the real world many find it easier to do when a child can understand why it is being taken away.

For Abu Dhabi mother Victoria Davies it's a touchy subject. She has tried to stop her 2-year-old son, Austin, from relying on his dummy but has failed so far.

"He was always a sucky baby and a dummy helped him, especially when he was sick. I tried to take it away when he was about 10 months old but he just screamed and screamed. I went through hell and then I gave in. Now he has it only when he goes to sleep - but even that had problems. When it fell out he woke up and we found ourselves severely sleep deprived as we had to go and find it and put it back in."

Ingeniously, she chose a favourite toy to which she can fix four dummies and which he cuddles, so that he now rarely wakes for want of one.

"We have decided that when he is three, in September, that is it, it has to go. It has already started to affect his teeth.

"I really don't like to see children with them. It smacks of lazy parenting, although it so often isn't that at all."

Teresa Huins's son, Reuben, who will be four in July, used a dummy from the age of two months until he was six months old.

But during their move from the UK to Abu Dhabi, when he was 13 months, a nanny let him have one - and he still has it at night.

"I am quite relaxed about it," Huins says. "I will encourage him to give it up before his fourth birthday. I just think they give it up when they are ready and I have some strategies to help. We have been talking about the dummy fairy.

"There are so many big things to worry about for our children, let's not worry about the little things. It's true that there are too many props for lazy parenting, but people are incredibly critical and judgmental of the parenting styles of others."

She touches on part of the dummy debate which few want to mention - the stigma of an older child's use of one.

Interestingly, while every mother to whom I spoke had an opinion or a tale to tell, many did not want their story told for fear of disapproval.

Perhaps the last word should go to Brereton-Stiles. Speaking both as a professional and a parent, he acknowledges the great difficulty there is in taking them away, but says that a pre-schooler should be spoken to about the fact the dummy has to go.

"It's no good trying to wean them off them - they just have to go. With my children, we buried the pacifiers in the garden for the fairies and later, when the children weren't there, dug them up and put them in the bin so they couldn't go and dig them back up."

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