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Baby pacifier study: Daytime use blocks key facial expression

The baby pacifier used in the daytime may disrupt emotional development, a University of Wisconsin study says, because baby can't mimic facial expressions. The twist? The problem seems only to show up in boys, not girls.

By Karen HerzogMilwaukee Journal Sentinel / September 19, 2012

A baby pacifier study suggests its not good for emotional development. Sans pacifiers, babies lie in cots at a maternity ward in Singapore in this March 29, 2007 file photo.

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Parents who don’t want their baby boys to grow up emotionally stunted may want to pocket their pacifiers during the daytime.

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A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests frequent pacifier use during the day may disrupt the emotional development of baby boys because it limits their opportunity to mimic the facial expressions of others — a tool that may help them better understand emotions and learn empathy.

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The study assumes babies can’t smile, pout or furrow a brow with a pacifier in their mouths, and many parents may beg to differ with that.

Girls appear to make sufficient progress emotionally, despite pacifier use, suggests the research published in Tuesday’s issue of the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Humans of all ages read each other’s emotions partly by mimicking their facial expressions, which helps them process what the person is thinking and feeling by creating some part of the feeling for themselves, says the study’s lead author, Paula Niedenthal, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor.

A baby with a pacifier in his mouth is less able to mirror expressions and the emotions they represent, she said.

Niedenthal and her team of researchers conducted three studies to test the relationship between pacifier use and emotional information processing, both in the United States and in France.

In the first study, researchers found 6- and 7-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 in a video they were shown. In the next study, college-aged men who reported (by their own recollections or their parents’) more pacifier use as kids scored lower than their peers on common tests of perspective-taking, one of many components of empathy.

The third study involved a group of college students who took a standard emotional intelligence test measuring the way they make decisions based on assessing the moods of other people. The men in the group who had heavier pacifier use as babies scored lower.

“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.”

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