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Dummies or Pacifiers May Affect Emotional Development

Using a dummy (or pacifier – both terms used) to calm and soothe a baby is standard parenting practice in many societies – in fact, there is evidence that baby comforters may have been used since the Neolithic period (as early as 10,000 B.C.) to calm babies. And if used safely, there is no doubt that a pacifier brings some much needed peace and sometimes even sleep to babies and their parents. However, there are also parents and paediatricians who strongly believe that dummy use has more downsides than benefits.

Three Indications that a Dummy Might Impact a Baby’s Emotional Growth

Recently published research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides another reason for parents to hesitate in using dummies too often with their babies. Using three experiments, the researchers, lead by Psychology Professor Paula Niedenthal, found that:

  • 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 dummy use as children scored lower than their peers on common tests of perspective-taking, a component of empathy.
  • When a group of college students took a standard test of emotional intelligence measuring the way they made decisions based on assessing moods of other people, among the men in the group, heavier pacifier use went hand-in-hand with lower scores.

There were a number of reasons put forward by the researchers about why boys may be more affected than girls by the use of a pacifier: Professor Niedenthal points out that girls develop earlier in many ways so it is possible that they make sufficient progress in emotional development before, or despite, the use of a pacifier. Alternatively boys might be more vulnerable than girls at this stage of emotional development so disrupting their use of facial mimicry is simply 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," said Professor Niedenthal, "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."

More Research Required on the Impact of Pacifier Use

Although there is evidence that heavy dummy use with boys may affect their emotional development, there is more research to be done; at this stage there is no evidence that occasional use of dummies with babies affects emotional growth. In fact Professor Niedenthal says "Probably not all pacifier use is bad at all …We already know from this work that night time 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."

In the United States, hospitals do not give pacifiers to newborns, and in Australia their use in young babies is discouraged by breastfeeding advocates because theory suggests that their use might inhibit the initiation or continuation of breastfeeding. The Baby Friendly Health Initiative (BFHI),a joint UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) project, accredits maternity hospitals as 'Baby Friendly' if they Give no artificial teats or dummies to breastfeeding infants”. Research continues on the effectiveness of discouraging the use of pacifiers in maternity hospitals, with one notable study from the Oregon Health & Science University suggesting that removal of pacifiers “may negatively impact exclusive breastfeeding rates during the birth hospitalization."

Bottom Line – Heavy Pacifier use Might Affect Empathy Development

Whether parents choose to use a pacifier to soothe their children or not, it is worthwhile developing an awareness of their baby’s methods of communicating about and learning about emotion. There is plenty of evidence that the skills known broadly as emotional intelligence are important for a children’s happiness and success as they mature. Referring to facial mimicry which is an important learning tool for babies, Professor Niedenthal explains that when babies reflect “what another person is doing, [they] create some part of the feeling” themselves and "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 way we communicate with infants at first is by using the tone of our voice and our facial expressions." And with a dummy, a baby is less able to mirror those expressions and the emotions they represent.

The advice from professor Niedenthal is this: "I'd just be aware of inhibiting any of the body's emotional representational systems. Since a baby is not yet verbal - and so much is regulated by facial expression - at least you want parents to be aware that using something like a pacifier limits their baby's ability to understand and explore emotions. And boys appear to suffer from that limitation." 

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