Do dummies delay babies speech?
Headlines in the news this week would have you believe that ‘dummies delay a baby’s speaking’ and ‘giving dummies to babies can slow their ability to talk‘. We frequently see media coverage that question practices that many parents engage in. These articles are usually paired with an attention catching headline strong enough to stop any parent who engages in what are often very common practices in their tracks! We have written previously of examples such as iPad use, co-sleeping, and praising children. So is there any merit in the latest headlines that question parents giving their child a dummy?……other than a photo opportunity of the Beckham’s youngest child!
The headlines relate to a new study that has taken a novel approach to assessing how children decipher speech sounds. The study was published in the academic journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was carried out by a group of researchers at the University of British Columbia, led by Dr. Alison Bruderer. Senior author, Professor Janet Werker, also featured in the news release on the study. By examining infants’ tongue movements while they listened to speech sounds, the researchers were able to make a direct link between infants’ oral-motor movements and their being able to decipher speech sounds. In the study, teething toys were put in the mouths of six month old infants (from English speaking families) while they listened to speech sounds – two different Hindi “d” sounds that infants can easily distinguish at this age. When the infants’ tongues were free to move the babies were able to make the distinction between the two “d” sounds, but when the toy restricted movements at the tip of the tongue, the infants were not able to distinguish between the sounds. The researchers commented that previous studies had concentrated on auditory experience for the development of speech perception and language acquisition.
Were conclusions made in the media such as “dummies delay a baby’s speaking” merited by the results? While the study findings clearly highlight an important role of tongue movement in speech perception, as the authors themselves comment in their press release “the study does not mean parents should take their babies’ soothers and teething toys away“. At no point do the researchers refer to the need to reduce dummy use! The study raises questions about how much time babies need with ‘free’ tongue movement, but the study itself did not assess whether use of dummies can delay speech or how much ‘free’ tongue movement is required. The headlines have therefore made a bit of a leap in inferring what the specific study findings specifically show.
Many parents reading articles of this nature would not think/be aware of searching for an authors’ press release or original articles to see if conclusions drawn in the media relate back to what researchers have actually said. But as we have previously commented on within our ‘top tips’ section, a good clue is usually if the authors are quoted directly in the article as making the inference. In this case they clearly did not make this inference. Research that specifically examines dummy use, and frequency of that use, is needed to draw conclusions about whether typical use of dummies can delay a babies speaking.
Bruderer, A. G. et al. (2015). Sensorimotor influences on speech perception in infancy. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1508631112