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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.

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Why the gender difference?

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“It could be that parents are inadvertently compensating for girls using the pacifier because they want their girls to be emotionally sophisticated,” Niedenthal said. “That’s a girlie thing.”

Suggesting that a pacifier can have lifelong consequences is far from popular among parents, Niedenthal acknowledged.

“They take the results very personally,” she said.

The study’s results are suggestive, and should be taken seriously, Niedenthal said. But she acknowledged further research is needed.

“It’s fascinating and challenging to many assumptions made about emotional development,” said Joseph Campos, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “It makes students of emotional development take notice. But as professor, Niedenthal acknowledges, there is much more work to be done.”

Mothers report babies can show oral expressions of emotion, even with a pacifier in their mouth, Campos said. And there are other facial components of emotion, including eyebrows, cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes, not affected by a pacifier, he said.

Not all researchers agree there’s a connection between the ability to mimic facial expressions and the ability to perceive others’ emotions.

And then there’s the gender question.

Figuring out why girls seem to be immune — or how they compensate — is an important next step for researchers, Niedenthal said.

Ruby Natale, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, co-wrote the book “Pacifiers Anonymous: How to Kick the Pacifier or Thumb Sucking Habit.”

The book notes that roughly 75 percent to 90 percent of all infants suck a pacifier or thumb. In the past, thumb-sucking was the No. 1 choice. But the latest estimates of pacifier use in the U.S. puts it at about 74 percent. One study found 20 percent of children sucked pacifiers beyond age 3. They’re affectionately referred to as “paddicts” (pacifier addicts).

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Natale, who has a 5-year-old daughter, became interested in the effects of pacifier use when she had concerns about its effect on breast-feeding. Both the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend limiting pacifier use to promote breast-feeding and because of its connection to ear infections and dental abnormalities.

“There’s research that pacifier use can cause speech delays because they don’t mimic the parents’ speech,” Natale said in an interview Monday. “If a child can’t mimic the parents’ emotional expressions, it takes it one step further.”

She agreed that further research is needed.

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