Link copied to clipboard

Funny how you weren’t all that worried about germs until the baby arrived. Now bacteria seem to be everywhere! Part of this change of perception is the very messy life of a newborn, full of poop, pee, spit up, and that dampish dirt that gathers in the creases under her chin.

So it is refreshing to read a new study in Pediatrics that suggests licking off a dropped pacifier is not only safe for the baby but actually contributes to the baby’s good health. Children whose parents routinely sucked a pacifier clean were much less likely to develop allergies, including eczema, a common early allergy marker, than were children whose parents boiled the pacifier or just ran it under water.

This is just another indication of what other studies have found before: that when it comes to small children being a little bit germy is better than being squeaky clean. Previous studies have found that children who play outside in the dirt are healthier than kids kept nice and neat and that babies raised with cats are less likely to develop allergies to pet hair than children raised without animals. Clearly, our obsession with germs could use some relaxation.

The one set of germs parents should be wary of are the germs that cause preventable childhood diseases. Babies should get their scheduled vaccinations, since the illnesses they block can cause serious complications with lifelong consequences. In addition, parents should be careful of the quality of water used to make formula and the quality and safety of foods fed to small children. Bacteria lurking in poor hygiene can be deadly. But ordinary, everyday sorts of bugs – the kind found on your kitchen floor, on the sidewalk under the stroller, and on the green grass – not so much.

Did your child just drop his binkie and is wailing to have it back? No worries. Just lick it off!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

My sons were encouraged to use a pacifier when they were babies. The older one liked his a lot and the younger one didn’t think much of the experience. Now a new study proposes that using a pacifier may delay a child’s ability to understand emotions and respond to others appropriately in social situations.

The study, published recently in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, evaluated the ability of 6- and 7-year old children to correctly identify the emotions of people presented in a video and to mimic those people’s facial expressions accurately. Researchers also measured the ability of college students on emotional intelligence and the ability to take someone else’s point-of-view. Then researchers compared participants’ scores to their parents’ memory of their children’s use of a pacifier as toddlers.

The study found that boys who were “heavy users” of pacifiers scored significantly less well on these tests of emotional responsiveness. It seemed that using a pacifier interfered with boys’ ability to practice emotions they see others express and this flattened their ability into the future to react appropriately to other people. For girls, using a pacifier made no difference.

Niedenthal notes that adults who have had Botox treatments and so lose the ability to move their facial muscles also lose emotional responsiveness. She says, “Botox users experience a narrower range of emotions and often have trouble identifying the emotions behind expressions on other faces.” This caused her to start thinking about factors that could interfere with infant emotional development in a similar way.

According to lead researcher Paula Niedenthal, using a pacifier to go to sleep isn’t a problem, since reacting to others’ faces isn’t part of drifting off to sleep. But she suggests that parents, especially parents of boys, should not rely on pacifiers to keep their children soothed during the day and they shouldn’t support a child’s pacifier habit past the first few months of life.

It’s possible, of course, that parents of older children, and especially of college students, might not remember their children’s pacifier use accurately. And children who felt a strong need for a pacifier as toddlers may have had completely different family experiences than children who didn’t, and these family differences might be more to blame for emotional disconnects than just using a pacifier. Certainly a follow-up study will shed more light on this issue. But in the meantime, limiting pacifier use during the day, especially for older babies and toddlers, might be a good idea.

It might make both you and your baby smile.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Most parents have no trouble with an infant sucking on a pacifier. But when a preschooler has to pull his pacifier out of his mouth to explain the plot of a Phineas and Ferb episode, most adults suspect things have carried on too long. At what age is a child too old for his favorite habit?

The child is too old, or is beginning to be too old, at the point when his habit becomes a habit instead of being a real comfort. A pacifier or a thumb provides real comfort for an infant. The sucking reflex is one of the few outlets an infant has for her anxiety or discontent. But at a certain point, the thumb or pacifier loses its comfort value and crosses the line into being a mere habit. The child sucks, not because sucking makes her feel good, but just because that’s what she does. It’s a habit.

It’s true that an older child might suck his thumb particularly when he is falling asleep or after he’s been upset. So it might appear that sucking still offers the same benefits it did when he was tiny. But actually the child has other outlets and could grow beyond the infantile suckle reflex. But because sucking has become a habit he will need some help to change.

Another indicator that a child is too old for her habit is if she says she wants to quit or if she is being teased about it. If a habit interferes with your child’s happiness or reputation, then clearly she needs some help with it.

How can you help your child give up a habit that needs to be let go?

If the habit truly must be stopped (not just moved to the privacy of one’s own room), then it matters whose idea this is. If stopping the habit is the child’s idea, then your job as a parent is easier. You and your child can brainstorm ideas for substituting something else for the habit, tracking progress toward reducing the habit and so on. You can be on a team, but the child takes the lead.

If stopping the habit is your idea, then you have two tasks: first you must make the child aware of when she is indulging in the habit since she’s likely not aware of this, and second, you must help her to make the choice to reject the habit when she notices she’s indulging in it. Noticing that she has a problem comes first.

Have a heart-to-heart talk someday when both of you are in a good mood and have some time. Describe your concern about the habit and state clearly your desire that your child give it up. Agree to notice how often she indulges in this habit over the next day or two. You might keep a chart or tally. Say, “Sally, I see you sucking your thumb right now” and have her mark the chart. But don’t hassle your child or shame her. Don’t tell her she’s being a baby.

At a second talk with your child, discuss the tallies on the chart and think of ways to reduce the habit. See if every day the number of indulgences can be smaller than before. Talk about other things your child could do when the urge to indulge the habit strikes. Work together on this, but not as adversaries. While quitting the habit might be your idea, you can’t make quitting happen without your child’s cooperation. So cooperate.

You know it’s not easy to quit a habit. If you ever smoked cigarettes, used language that embarrassed your mother, left your clothes on the floor where you took them off, or said, “You know?” all the time, you understand that quitting a habit is difficult. Think back to the struggle you went through when you stopped doing those things. Or maybe you tried but didn’t manage actually to quit?

Quitting takes time. Cut your child some slack. Be patient and persistent and celebrate his progress along the way.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.