Don’t judge the Beckhams. Dummy or breast, small children need comforting – The Guardian

I don’t like dummies. I’m not going to lie to you; when I see the fresh and timeless beauty of a soft little face with a tacky piece of plastic sticking out the middle, it feels all wrong to me – like a Post-it note on a Monet. None of my three children have used a dummy; it’s just not my style.

But then again, my children haven’t needed one, because they’ve had the mummy dummy. Each of them has breastfed until they’ve decided to “self-wean” – both girls did so aged four and the youngest, a boy, is still enthusiastically nursing and turns two next month. Any time they’ve needed to be comforted or some help getting to sleep, I’ve just stuck my boob in their mouth.

In a sense, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum to David and Victoria Beckham, whose parenting choices have been called into question this week after their four-year-old daughter Harper was photographed using a dummy. Where the Beckhams face scrutiny for letting their daughter suck on an artificial teat for too long, I belong to another group of pilloried parents known as “extended breastfeeders”, who let their children suck for just as long but on a real nipple. As far apart as our choices may be, we share common ground – we are both judged.

Indeed, the very same expert is at the forefront of the current row about the Beckhams’ dummy use. Clare Byam-Cook has in the past also spoken out against breastfeeding older children. Most memorably she sat on the This Morning sofa next to a mother who nurses her six-year-old and – in spite of being a breastfeeding specialist – undermined the mother’s choices by saying her behaviour was “not natural in this country”.

Byam-Cook’s attitudes are fairly typical in a culture where we tend to cling to a rather old-school view of dependence versus independence. The idea that we should encourage small children to grow up and be less needy persists, despite being entirely unfounded in modern psychology, which tells us the opposite: that letting children be close and feel nurtured for as long as they wish will create the sound basis needed for future mental health.

Mothers breastfeed their children at a breastfeed-athon
Mothers breastfeed their children at a breastfeed-athon. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

It would be great to drive a stake through these attitudes once and for all: there would be many a grateful four-year-old who would enjoy an extra snuggle, a night in mummy’s bed or a few moments a day with her dummy or blanket, without her parents feeling anxious about making a rod for her back. Ultimately little children are needy by nature, we do not make them so, and the pointless struggle against this fact of life is the root cause of many a parent’s difficult day or night.

I don’t like dummies, but there have been times when I’ve longed for my little nurslings to take to one and give my tired boobs a break. We even tried one once with baby number two, in the hope that it would replace her need for me at night. It didn’t, and she spat it out in disgust. And so I’ve soldiered on, surviving nearly a decade of broken sleep, which the likes of Byam-Cook would surely find ridiculous.

“It’s just for comfort”, is the oft-heard refrain, as if this somehow makes an act less valid. And yet, what greater gift can we give our children than a feeling of warmth and security, those little points of refuge in a difficult world? The minutiae of our parenting choices is irrelevant as long as our children know how it feels to love and be loved. If we are getting this right then, as Beckham has said, why should we be criticised?