Why Might Pacifiers Get in the Way of Understanding Your Child?

No matter how many babies I meet, I’m always left wondering what they want. Does a short squeak followed by a shrill squeal signal that the baby is hungry? That I left the dog outside by accident again? Or is the baby simply testing out her developing vocal chords? Driven by confusion and frustration, I might insert a pacifier into the baby’s mouth. The baby seems soothed, and I can take a breather.

But according to one recent study, pacifiers disrupt our ability to understand a baby’s emotional state. Adult participants viewed pictures of happy and distressed babies. Sometimes the babies wore pacifiers and others times they didn’t. When the baby wore a pacifier, adults showed less intense facial reactivity and also rated the baby’s emotions as less intense. It didn’t matter whether the babies were happy or sad. The pacifiers numbed adults to baby facial expressions.

Why did this happen? The idea hinges on the belief that we automatically mimic others’ emotional expressions. When I see people smile, I naturally mimic them because it helps me understand them and show empathy. Mimicking others is a great way to make friends. It lets others know we’re on the same team. Those who feel starved of social connection are the most likely to mimic others.

Pacifiers are mimic roadblocks. With a gadget covering your face, I can’t make out what you’re feeling. As a result, I mimic you less, empathize with you less, and ultimately judge your experience as less intense than it really is.

I don’t have a strong opinion about pacifiers. My sisters used them with their children, my parents used them with me, and I might use them when I have my own children. Like any consumer of knowledge, I’ll use this science to inform the choices I make. One thing is certain: I’ll never look at a pacifier in the same way.