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.
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.
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.”
Why the gender difference?
“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).
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.