Pacifier Use Possibly Stunts Emotional Development
September 19, 2012

Pacifiers Can Stunt Emotional Growth Of Baby Boys

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently discovered that pacifiers might affect the emotional state of young boys by limiting the number of facial expressions that can be practiced in infancy.

The findings on the impact of pacifiers on emotional development were recently featured in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

"By reflecting what another person is doing, you create some part of the feeling yourself," explained lead researcher Paula Niedenthal, UW—Madison psychology professor, in a prepared statement. "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."

The scientists conducted a total of three experiments and the study was the first to look at the psychological impact due to pacifiers. According to the researchers, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics has already recommended reduced use of pacifiers to limit ear infections and dental problems as well as to promote breast-feeding. Based on the results, the investigators believe that mimicking body language and expressions is important for infants in terms of mental development.

"We can talk to infants, but at least initially they aren't going to understand what the words mean," noted Niedenthal in the statement. "So the way we communicate with infants at first is by using the tone of our voice and our facial expressions."

The researchers compared the results of the study on the reduction of mimicking in infants with pacifiers to the finding of a study on patients with Botox injections. The past study had shown that Botox could paralyze facial muscles, limiting the variety of emotions and making it difficult to distinguish between different facial expressions.

"That work got us thinking about critical periods of emotional development, like infancy,"  remarked Niedenthal in the statement. "What if you always had something in your mouth that prevented you from mimicking and resonating with the facial expression of somebody?"

In studying boys who were between six and seven years of age, the scientists discovered that pacifiers made the kids less likely to copy the facial expression of others. As well, college students who reported that they had used pacifiers more as kids received lower scores on tests related to perspective - taking, a component of empathy. Furthermore, in a group of college students, those who scored the lowest had heavily used pacifiers as kids and were less able to assess the moods of others around them.

"What's impressive about this is the incredible consistency across those three studies in the pattern of data," commented Niedenthal, whose study was funded in part by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche, in the statement. "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."

In terms of gender, the researchers determined that girls develop earlier and are able to advance in their emotional development even if they had used pacifiers. The researchers proposed that boys may be more vulnerable than girls and that the use of pacifiers can have more consequences than for girls.

"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," replied Niedenthal in the statement. "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."

Overall, the scientists recommend that parents limit the use of pacifiers for children.

"I'd just be aware of inhibiting any of the body's emotional representational systems," replied Niedenthal in the statement. "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."

In moving forward with the study, the researchers want to focus on how girls or more immune than males are to the impacts of using a pacifier.

"Probably not all pacifier use is bad at all times, so how much is bad and when?" proposed Niedenthal in the statement. "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."