Why Dummies are for Suckers

IN THE NEWSWritten by Claire Bates
Baby boys given pacifiers 'will turn out less emotionally mature' (but girls grow up fine) - A dummy may seem like an ideal way to soothe a crying baby, but a new study suggests this could stunt their emotional development. Infants learn how to interact largely through mimicry and researchers found pacifiers interrupted this process in young boys as they stopped them from copying different facial expressions. The team of psychologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that heavy pacifier use was linked to poor results on various measures of emotional maturity. The study is the first to associate pacifiers with psychological consequences. The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics already call for limiting pacifier use to promote breast-feeding and because of connections to ear infections or dental abnormalities.

Humans of all ages often mimic - unwittingly or otherwise - the expressions and body language of the people around them. 'By reflecting what another person is doing, you create some part of the feeling yourself,' said lead author Professor Paula Niedenthal. 'That's one of the ways we understand what someone is feeling - especially if they seem angry, but they're saying they're not; or they're smiling, but the context isn't right for happiness.' Mimicry can be an important learning tool for babies. 'We can talk to infants, but at least initially they aren't going to understand what the words mean,' Prof Niedenthal says. 'So the way we communicate with infants at first is by using the tone of our voice and our facial expressions.' With a pacifier in their mouth, a baby is less able to mirror those expressions and the emotions they represent. The effect is similar to that seen in studies of patients receiving injections of Botox to paralyze facial muscles and reduce wrinkles. Botox users experience a narrower range of emotions and often have trouble identifying the emotions behind expressions on other faces. 'That work got us thinking about critical periods of emotional development, like infancy,' said Prof Niedenthal. 'What if you always had something in your mouth that prevented you from mimicking and resonating with the facial expression of somebody?'

The researchers found six and seven-year-old boys who spent more time with pacifiers in their mouths as young children were less likely to mimic the emotional expressions of faces peering out from a video. College-aged men who reported (by their own recollections or their parents') more pacifier use as children also scored lower than their peers on common tests of perspective-taking, a component of empathy. A group of college students took a standard test of emotional intelligence measuring the way they make decisions based on assessing the moods of other people. Among the men in the group, heavier pacifier use went hand-in-hand with lower scores. 'What's impressive about this is the incredible consistency across those three studies in the pattern of data,' Niedenthal said. 'There's no effect of pacifier use on these outcomes for girls, and there's a detriment for boys with length of pacifier use even outside of any anxiety or attachment issues that may affect emotional development.' Girls develop earlier in many ways, according to Niedenthal, and it is possible that they make sufficient progress in emotional development before or despite pacifier use. It may be that boys are simply more vulnerable than girls, and disrupting their use of facial mimicry is just more detrimental for them. 'It could be that parents are inadvertently compensating for girls using the pacifier, because they want their girls to be emotionally sophisticated. Because that's a girly thing,' Niedenthal says. 'Since girls are not expected to be unemotional, they're stimulated in other ways. But because boys are desired to be unemotional, when you plug them up with a pacifier, you don't do anything to compensate and help them learn about emotions.'

Suggesting such a simple and common act has lasting and serious consequences is far from popular. 'Parents hate to have this discussion,' Niedenthal says. 'They take the results very personally. Now, these are suggestive results, and they should be taken seriously. But more work needs to be done.' Working out why girls seem to be immune (or how they may compensate) is an important next step as is the impact of how often the pacifier used. 'Probably not all pacifier use is bad at all times, so how much is bad and when?' Niedenthal said. 'We already know from this work that nighttime pacifier use doesn't make a difference, presumably because that isn't a time when babies are observing and mimicking our facial expressions anyway. It's not learning time.' But even with more research planned to further explain the new results, Niedenthal is comfortable telling parents to consider occasionally pocketing the pacifier. 'I'd just be aware of inhibiting any of the body's emotional representational systems,' Niedenthal said. 'Since a baby is not yet verbal - and so much is regulated by facial expression - at least you want parents to be aware of that using something like a pacifier limits their baby's ability to understand and explore emotions. And boys appear to suffer from that limitation.' The study was published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
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EastBayNanny said...

LOVE THIS! Thank you! Pacifiers are highly discouraged in RIE programs. Even 20 years ago, the lab school I attended did not allow them. New research is always needed :)

Sarah said...

Isn't there a link betweeen pacifier use and decreased instances of SIDS though?

Sarah said...

EastBayNanny, I've never heard of RIE, do they only have classes in Los Angeles?

Cynthia said...

What a total waste of money and research.

nycmom said...

I agree with Cynthia. I will reserve final judgment til I read the whole study. But so far I see so many potential biases and absolutely no grounds to assume causation.

1. There is no randomization and no controls.
2. It appears pacifier use is determined by recall, fraught with bias.
3. It is entirely possible, and more likely, that the kids who needed (and got) the pacifier more were already predisposed to a different emotional development.

Anyone with kids will report that different kids have varying degrees of interest in the pacifier. My most difficult child, the one who struggles the most with empathy, was absolutely in love with the pacifier for self-soothing from early infancy. I highly doubt the pacifier "caused" this, though I'm sure you can correlate many random things.

Bethany said...

As a prof of mine used to say.

Correlation does not mean causation.

Interesting read. I'd like to see the full study.

Manhattan Nanny said...

So parents and nannies of boys should not get botox.

Bethany said...

Haha Manhattan!

EastBayNanny said...

Sarah- they still have some online class options I believe. Anyone can attend a workshop, and people do from all over the world. They just had one called "The Nurturing Nanny" :))

EastBayNanny said...

Sarah, getting my learning resources confused- Pacific Oaks has online options. I don't think RIE does?

gypsy said...

The WHO used to list homosexuality as a disease, too. I don't put too much stock into their opinion.

I could create a study to prove the opposite. I agree, we need to know more about the study before we can take it seriously.

Ice queen said...

Uhh pacifiers are completely unnecessary to begin with. I hate seeing Kids with them. My kids won't use them.

Lyn said...

I hate pacifiers used past a certain age (about the first year). Truthfully, I probably won't give them to my kids past about 7 months old. But as much as I dislike them this "study" sounds more like a playgroup sampling.

Tales from the (Nanny)Hood said...

It's an interesting idea (and obviously it's going to rattle some cages) but there's no way to definitively prove their theory.

Adding to nycmom's list:

1) Did the child have a paci while awake or asleep?
2) Was the child encouraged to take the paci out, or did the parents use it to keep the poor kid quiet?

The connection between paci use and lower sids incidence is going to trump this study I would guess.

Future Nurse :) said...

Tales and Lyn,

I agree, there is totally an age where the pacifier needs to go. Make the paci-fairy come visit!

However, for me personally the reduction in SIDS risk wayyyy outweighs anything presented in this study. If my child dies as an infant, I won't get the chance to do anything about his emotional well being.

Lyn said...


EastBayNanny said...

NannyPants said...

Eh, mixed feelings. I'm not completely PRO PACI, but I don't disapprove of them. Luckily, my charge is not attached to his. He has one to fall asleep occasionally, but if the paci fairy came to visit tonight, I don't think he would even notice. :)

MissMannah said...

EastBay, I LOVE Janet's blog. I'm constantly reposting her stuff to my facebook.

However, this is one area I completely disagree with RIE on. I think pacis are necessary with little ones. I try to discourage thumb sucking because you can't take it away after awhile! I would know, I sucked my thumb until I was 9 years old.

Like others said, soothing via sucking reduces SIDS. I plan on giving a paci to my own children but hopefully after 6-9 months try to start weaning them off it.

OceanBlue said...

I think they need to do more thorough research.

As for pacifiers, some kids don't use them.

I and my siblings never did.

The last few babies I've nannied for haven't used them, and it's not like their parents are I are refusing them. The kids just don't want them at all.

nycmom said...

Yep, it seems totally innate. One of my dc was totally addicted (and still is extremely oral at 12yo); one could take it or leave it; the other hated it. And this is from day one so I learned to respect that different kids have different soothing needs.

Of course, extended paci use as a lazy parenting tool is a whole 'nother issue.

OceanBlue said...

That's always worried me a little because of SIDS.

But it's not like you can force a baby to take a pacifier.

I also agree that after the first year it;s time for the paci to go.

hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm said...

If nothing consoled your child you mean to say that you wouldn't try a paci? Hard to believe.

OceanBlue said...

Not at all. If I have kids of my own I might would try a pacifier or do what my mother did and soothe with breasfeeding.

But not all babies are soothed by pacifiers.

The babies I care for now and my previous charge have no interest in pacifiers, and pacifiers were tried.

I still think it's good to start weaning off the pacifier at around 12 months and on to other methods of soothing.

In my experience when you don't start around that time you have a 4 year old with 4 pacifiers.

Of course their are allowances for individual kids but in general I think the sooner the better.

MaryPoppin'Pills said...

I want to put in my two cents here and hope I don't offend anyone.

When my son was little he was in and out of the hospital a lot his first year. The nurses kept trying to give him a pacifier and after seeing them continue doing so I got pretty vocal and told them he didn't want it and to please stop offering it to him.

I don't know why but I have always had a huge opposition to pacifiers and was thrilled my son wasn't interested in them.

hmmmmmm said...

I was asking Ice Queen & MissMannah.

MissMannah said...

"Hmm" if you were referring to me with that question, you need to go back and read my post. I thought I made it clear that I want my child to take a paci. I tried to get my current charge to take one when she was little bitty but alas, she preferred her thumb. I'm just glad she only sucks it when sleeping so hopefully she'll break the habit early.

hmmmmmm said...

Ice queen only. Sorry Miss.

Ice queen said...


Nope. There are plenty of ways to soothe oneself and there's really no need for a pacifier.

I'd rather y kids scream until they're blue. Its a personal choice. I also Plan to co-sleep so I'm not particularly worried about SIDS and te correlation between reductiOn of SIDS deaths due to pacifier use.

Caring Mom All Day said...

Some babies are only soothed by a pacifier. I think it would be mean to deny them one, personally.

RBTC said...

lyn - you know the drill - i am not interested in pacifiers so i will leave this one to you ;)

Caring Mom All Day said... forgot that you are me. I AM interested in pacifiers (and adoption) so of course YOU (me) should be, too. Right?!! *giggles

East Bay, too forgot that you are me. I AM endorsing of pacifiers. So you're going to have to be, too! You know, since you are me and everything!! *giggles


I am the opposite of most of you guys when it comes to pacis. I actually wanted my kids to use them. My first born would have a bunch of them and rotate them in and out of her mouth, lol. But not all of my kids would take them or show any interest. I do have a thumb sucker and he never took a paci.

RBTC said...

i guess i must be arguing with both of myselves ... but that's ok!