Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pacifiers and baby boys

I'm a bit behind on this one, but this study was too interesting to pass up.

Apparently, research suggests that pacifier use by boys limits their social development.

So we'll start with the bias alert.  I have a baby boy, and he does use a pacifier to help him go to sleep.  I didn't have any particular feelings about this, I just gave it a whirl and liked the way it helped him calm down when he was tired.  Give it 5 minutes, and he tends to spit it out and go to sleep.  That seemed rational to me, I actually was unaware there was much controversy about this until I got reading this article (reiterating Dubbahdee's point that I should never read parenting advice on the internet....oops).

Obviously, I don't yet know what his social development is going to turn out like (though at the moment he's astoundingly unsympathetic to my lack of sleep), but I generally hope it's okay.   End bias alert.

It took me a while to find the actual paper (why oh why do so many news sources not link to the actual paper????), but after scanning the whole thing I had a couple thoughts.

The headlines about this paper were stupid, of course.  The author actually had a pretty good theory based on actual science (babies learn emotions in part through mimicry, she wondered if a pacifier would make this harder for babies because their facial muscles were occupied), and of course it got over reported. Most headlines just mentioned "pacifier use" in general, but she clarifies pretty quickly that they only studied pacifier use during baby wake time....specifically excluding the type of pacifier use I described above (as a sleep aid).  This makes sense (the woman does have 3 boys herself after all) because you don't have to spend very long around babies before you realize they're probably not learning much when they're trying to fall asleep.  They're mostly just crying.

Anyway, the set up for the study was pretty good.  They assessed both 6 and 7 year olds and their emotional reactions vs pacifier use, and then later college students who were questioned about their history of pacifier usage to tie it to adult development.

For that second, I was curious about the length of pacifier use we were talking about, as this was based on the recollection of college students and their parents, and I was wondering how accurate that would be.  This graph sums it up nicely:

I'm not familiar with the emotional intelligence scale they're using, so I'll take their word for it that 4.7 to 4.4 is statistically significant....but wow, daytime use of a pacifier until 5 years of age?  That does seem like it should cause some concern.  Also, it seems as those the recollection bias here would be clustered at either end.  Parents would remember more accurately either remarkably short or remarkably long pacifier use...but that's just a guess.

Overall, I thought it was annoying that "daytime use of pacifiers until kindergarten" got labeled as just "pacifier use", but I thought the research was certainly intriguing.  I especially liked that they tested both younger children and adults to help prove their theory, as emotional development is most definitely a complex process that takes decades to work through.

What I actually liked about this study the most was Ann Althouse's take on it.  She wondered if this meant you could stop overly emotional women from being overly emotional by giving them Botox so they couldn't mimic those around them.  I'd say it's worth a shot.


  1. Since memories are not reliable, I can't swear to the accuracy of this, but the studies about pacifier use back in the 70's were trying to link excessive use to the likelihood of taking up smoking cigarettes. I think they found a link.

    1. I tried searching for any actual studies and couldn't find any, though that certainly doesn't mean they don't exist.

      I wonder though if any correlation would be based on high anxiety babies becoming high anxiety adults...who of course are more likely to smoke.

  2. I thought this was interesting, but I am skeptical. It seems to me that if you are using a pacifier for that long, the baby/toddler/kid likely ALREADY has problems or some degree of social isolation/neglect. How many four year-old boys have we seen walking around sucking on a pacifier during the day?

    Because the behavior cited is abnormal in my experience, I suspect the causation.

  3. Are parents who encourage pacifiers genetically or culturally different from those who don't? Are boys who fight to keep their pacifiers or actively seek them out different than the others?

    If you took the nuks away, would their social skills improve?

    I loved the theorising on the girls' development. "Null hypothesis for girls, so let's explain it via our default theory that has no evidence behind it." That alone makes me worry about the boys' study.

  4. Reading this reminded me of when I worked in 1st grade, back in 1982. A little boy in circle was sucking his thumb, and reached over to the little girl next to him and (gently) grabbed a handful of her long hair and sat sucking and rubbing and falling asleep. Before nuks there were thumbs. I remember a thumb sucking classmate in 4th grade. Can self soothing get in the way of social or emotional development?