When the crying just won't stop, a lot of parents turn to their trusty pal the pacifier. But pacifiers could be halting more than momentary fussiness.
The binky may be stunting emotional growth in boys, a study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology found. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered that when used heavily, pacifiers could stop infants – specifically boys – from mimicking facial expressions.
"We can talk to infants, but at least initially they aren't going to understand what the words mean," Paula Niedenthal, lead author of the study, said in a press release. "So the way we communicate with infants at first is by using the tone of our voice and our facial expressions."
About the study
For one part of the study, Niedenthal and a team of researchers showed more than 100 kids a video of facial expressions. The discovery? That 6- and 7-year-old boys who used pacifiers heavily as children did a poor job mimicking the facial expressions shown in the video, the study says.
In addition, the researchers found that male college students whose parents recalled them using pacifiers heavily as children scored lowest on tests measuring emotional intelligence, such as the ability to gauge the moods of others.
Pacifier use while sleeping or during quiet time didn't factor in as an issue, the study notes, because during those times children are not mimicking facial expressions.
Boys vs. girls
So why are these results only found in boys? Niedenthal says it is possible girls develop earlier than boys, or that it may be society.
"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," Niedenthal said in the release. "Since girls are not expected to be unemotional, they're stimulated in other ways."
How damaging are pacifiers?
Ultimately, is pacifier use detrimental to boys' emotional development?
Eric Herman, clinical psychologist at the DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, says he would be worried if parents allowed their child to have a pacifier all the time, but he says the study could be "easily misunderstood."
"There's a difference between causation and correlation," Herman explains. "There's no causal link here to say if the children use a pacifier that it directly causes this kind of a problem. They're recognizing … there may be some connection to the use of a pacifier."
Herman explains there are numerous things parents do to pacify their children – and that anything in excess is not a good thing.
And it's true, Herman says, that if a child has a pacifier in his mouth all day, that's a problem, because "it's really hard to talk with a pacifier in your mouth."
"It's better not to have it in your mouth. You can do all the things your mouth should be doing," Herman says, including the natural mimicking humans do naturally. "If the pacifier's in your mouth, you can't do certain things."
Helping all kids develop emotionally
Children develop by struggling and by being upset, Herman says, but "allowing kids to go through the ups and downs" of development is often challenging for mom and dad.
"For a lot of parents – they're little, they're cute (and) you don't want to see them struggle," he says.
Herman suggests that on top of allowing kids to cry and get upset, parents should show kids how to interact and also talk to them about feelings.
Bottom line: "Parents shouldn't be too worried" about pacifiers, Herman says, just so long as kids aren't constantly plugged up with one.
But "if parents can do it without a pacifier," he adds, "I'm all for it."