Why baby’s bedtime routine can be bad for their oral health
For babies, sucking is a reflex movement which kicks-in when the roof of the baby’s mouth is touched. Most babies have a strong sucking reflex, which can start as early as the 32nd week of pregnancy. The reflex action is replaced by a voluntary action at around 2 to 3 months of age. Babies also have a strong hand-to-mouth reflex, with some babies even sucking their fingers or hands while still in the womb. 
Beyond nutrition, the calming benefits received from sucking are well known, and sucking on a dummy or bottle can be really helpful for settling upset or unwell babies. However, when does this practice become more harmful than helpful?
Prolonged use of dummies and bottles to soothe can become a habit, similar to thumb and finger sucking, which is very difficult to break. Children tend to outgrow the practice at some stage, usually between the ages of 2 to 4. The sooner a child can ‘kick the habit’, the better it will be for their long-term oral health.
What harm can dummies and bottles do?
Firstly, children who suck on a bottle containing anything other than water through the night are at a much higher risk of developing tooth decay.
Saliva (which helps to protect the teeth) is reduced while sleeping. This, combined with the fact that liquids other than water contain sugars, which can be converted by bacteria in the mouth into acid and put new teeth at risk of dental decay. Similarly, dipping a dummy into sweet things like honey to encourage a baby to suck has the same effect on teeth as sucking on lollies for prolonged periods.
Research shows that prolonged dummy use or bottle use at night can increase the risk of ear infections. Bottle teats and dummies can harbour bacteria and viruses, especially if they have been dropped or placed in another mouth without sterilising before using. The old practice of ‘cleaning’ a dummy in the mother’s mouth after it has been dropped has been shown to introduce more bacteria into the baby’s mouth, some of which may be harmful for teeth and gums.
How to avoid long-term impact on oral health:
- If using a bottle to settle your baby to sleep through the night, only use water in the bottle.
- Don’t dip dummies into any substance before offering to baby.
- Keep dummies and bottles clean and sterilised.
- Try to limit the use of bottles and dummies by the age of 2, and certainly aim to stop using them before age 4.
- After 18 months of age, avoid using dummies during the daytime to allow for development of the jaw and muscles for speech.
- When the time comes to stop, perhaps try encouraging your child to ‘donate’ their dummy to charity or leave it for the ‘dummy fairy’ to collect.
- Talk to your oral health professional about any concerns you have and for advice on ways to break the dummy or bottle habit.
The good news is that bottles and dummies play an important role for soothing babies. Children generally tend to wean themselves over time and, with encouragement, it is an easier habit to break than finger or thumb sucking.
The Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP), is a group of independent healthcare professionals with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of good oral health and its impact on general wellness. The Panel aims to take oral health beyond the dental clinic.
Follow the Oral Health Advisory Panel via twitter @OHAPanel to stay up to date with practical advice on good oral health habits.