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Heavy pacifier use may have emotional consequences for boys, a new study suggests. (Photo courtesy of Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock)
Sep 26, 2012 | News Americas

Pacifiers may disrupt infantile emotional development

by Dental Tribune International

MADISON, Wis., USA: While health organizations have already called for limiting pacifier use owing to its association with dental abnormalities and ear infections, a new study has found that heavy pacifier use as a young child affects emotions in children and boys in particular. According to the researchers, pacifiers prevent babies from mimicking expressions, which stunts their emotional development.

According to researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, mimicry is an important learning tool for small children and infancy is a crucial period with regard to emotional development. "By reflecting what another person is doing, you create some part of the feeling yourself," said Paula Niedenthal, psychology professor at the university and lead author of the study. With a pacifier in its mouth, however, a baby is less able to mirror those expressions and the emotions they represent.

Similar to patients who have received Botox injections, the children experience restricted facial movement and consequently also a narrowed range of emotions. In addition, they may have trouble identifying the emotions behind expressions on other faces, the researchers said.

Male subjects obtained consistently lower scores in standard tests measuring emotional intelligence that were conducted in the scope of the study. It revealed that six- and seven-year-old boys who had used pacifiers extensively as infants were less likely to mimic the emotional expression of faces in a video film. In addition, college-aged men who reported greater pacifier use as babies scored lower than their peers on common tests of perspective taking, a component of empathy.

However, no such effect was found among girls. The researchers believe that since girls develop earlier in general, it is possible that they make sufficient emotional progress before or despite pacifier use. Boys, however, may be more susceptible to the disrupting effect of pacifiers. Investigating why girls seem to compensate is an important next step, Niedenthal said.

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