Unsettling news about soothers


SOOTHERS MAY calm tantrums in a moment, but excessive use could cause lasting harm.

Studies of US and French children have found that soothers may curb emotional development in boys. Research on children and adults also found that a poor score card in emotional maturity in adults could be linked to heavy soother use as a young child.

“We can talk to infants, but at least initially they aren’t going to understand what the words mean,” said Dr Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who led the study.

“So the way we communicate with infants at first is by using the tone of our voice and our facial expressions,” she said.

Infants rely on reading facial expressions for learning and part of this learning is copying those facial expressions. With a pacifier in their mouth, a baby is less able to mirror those expressions and the emotions they represent.

By making the same face as their parent, an infant can learn about their feelings. In fact, nerves from the brain cause facial expressions but nerves from the face also go back to the brain.

“Boys that use a pacifier for a longer period of time showed less facial mimicry,” said Dr Niedenthal.

“And the longer boys reported having used a pacifier, the lower their score of empathy.”

However, the problem is only linked to soother use during daytime, not during sleep. This is the first such study to link soother sucking with psychological consequences.

“Parents should consider why they are introducing the [soother] and when they are using it and whether it is for the child or for themselves,” added Dr Niedenthal.

People of all ages often mimic the expressions and body language of those around them. When we mimic somebody else, we have a greater appreciation for how they are feeling.

Soothers occupy muscles around the mouth and disrupt a child’s facial mimicry. It also blocks adults from seeing how a child is reacting and prevents them mirroring these reactions.

The effect was seen only in boys, not girls. The researchers speculate that parents could be compensating with daughters by assisting them more in expression and emotional learning or girls themselves may be using soothers less at certain times.

“Or the girls are just developing fast enough that, by the time they start to use [soothers], certain kinds of behaviour are already in play. Mimicry and eye contact, for example, occur early in girls,” said Dr Niedenthal.

The use of soothers is already controversial. The World Health Organisation recommends limiting their use, partly to promote successful breast-feeding and partly because of a link between soother use and middle ear infections and dental abnormalities.

However, some medical groups recommend their use during sleep in the first year of life as a preventive measure against sudden infant death syndrome.

The study was reported in the current issue of the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.