The great dummy debate: Are the Beckhams right to let Harper hang onto her soother?
The Beckhams have come under fire for letting their four-year-old daughter Harper hang on to her soother. Virtually nothing divides parents more than the question of whether to use a pacifier
David Beckham is a dummy daddy - or so say furious parenting experts, who are up in arms over photographs of Beckham's daughter Harper sucking a soother. This, they argue, is negligent child-rearing on a par with allowing your toddler play in the traffic.
Adding fuel to the furore is the fact that Harper is all of four years old. Letting your 18-month-old chew on a dummy is one thing. But is it right that a child who may very well be able to feed and dress themselves be mollycoddled - some might call it 'spoiled' - in a similar fashion?
"I can't believe she is still using a dummy," Clare Byam-Cook, author of Breastfeeding Without Tears was quoted as saying. "If she has a dummy in her mouth at this age, at four, it really can damage her teeth and it is very likely to hinder speech development."
When it comes to using a soother, parents tend to either be firmly in the 'for' or 'against' camp. And it's amazing how judgemental parents can be of one another on the issue. But soothers, lest we forget, have been around for hundreds of years, typically fashioned of ivory, coral or bone (in Durer's Madonna with the Siskin from 1506 the infant Christ holds a cloth-tied pacifier).
A backlash began in the late 19th century, with pioneers in pediatric medicine theorising that sucking on machine-tooled rubber (widespread since the mid 1900s) could spell psychological trouble later in life. Anti-soother sentiment had a distinctly sexual undercurrent.
By 1900, a British health leaflet (which would have been circulated in Ireland) went so far as to graphically state that "a baby that has a dummy is like a tiger that has tasted blood".
The soother question was even a class issue: their use was regarded as a parenting crutch for the lower orders. Such was the widely held view - albeit with diminished emphasis on tigers and blood slurping - until the early 2000s, at which point researchers discovered soothers had the potential to protect children from sudden infant death syndrome. One theory is that the teat pushes the baby's tongue forward, keeping open the oral pathway and preventing the child from asphyxiating.
In light of this breakthrough, medically-received wisdom has shifted. The prestigious Mayo Clinic, for instance, suggests soothers can help a baby sleep, offer comfort to a fussy child and provide useful distraction during a traumatic incident - such as receiving an injection.
But the clinic is also at pains to highlight the downside - pointing out that early pacifier use may interfere with breastfeeding (many parents will treat such assertions with incredulity).
"Soothers are only for nap-time - in other words, for when the child is going to sleep," says midwife Margaret Merrigan-Feenan. "Really, you should start weaning them off probably at the age of two."
Using soothers outside of nap-time, she adds, can potentially inhibit speech development or cause dermatitis, if the baby dribbles when the soother is in the mouth.
"We don't recommend soothers in the first couple of weeks because of breast-feeding - there can be nipple and teat confusion," she says.
In the case of my three children, our five-year-old was weaned off a soother by two and a half. He was not entirely thrilled by the enforced parting - the best strategy, we found, was to distract him with new bed-time rituals (such having a story read or being permitted to watch several minutes of In The Night Garden).
With our two-year-old twins, the campaign for a soother-free household is ongoing, with the dummies largely confined to bed-time, though our little girl does still occasionally call for hers on a car journey. In a moment of weakness I will occasionally give into her demands, for which I'm sure I should feel guiltier than I do.
Whatever the pros and cons, one fascinating element of the story is that it is David rather than Victoria Beckham who has becoming embroiled in a parenting debate. The former England soccer captain has lately been playing the role of stay-at-home dad, but nonetheless, it's rare that dads are seen tackling such parenting issues head on.
Should we regard it is a positive that this time, it's dad in the firing line? I believe there are positives to be taken from the furore.
Beckham truly is pushing back boundaries and making the house dad acceptable. I have experienced first hand this shift in attitudes and the healthy development in represents. Nowadays, when I take my kids to the park or our local soft play area I am mostly surrounded by other fathers. A generation ago, mothers would have been in the majority, the dads off in the pub or plonked in front of a television. The mood has definitely changed - and Beckham can surely take a bow for having done his bit.
Dummy-gate may rumble on for some time yet. But if there is to be a last word, perhaps it should go to Beckham, who responded to the charges of rubbish dad-dom with dignity.
"Everybody who has children knows that when they aren't feeling well or have a fever you do what comforts them best and most of the time it's a pacifier," he wrote on his Instagram account. "Those who criticize think twice about what you say about other people's children because actually you have no right to criticize me as a parent."