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Checkup: Pacifier Use May Determine Emotional Intelligence

Thomas Kohler/

Pacifiers may stunt the emotional development of baby boys by robbing them of the opportunity to try on facial expressions during infancy. 

Barbara Lewis: You’ve seen it a thousand times, a baby smacking away on a pacifier. Anything wrong with that? Well, Jill Ditmire looked into it.

Ditmire: Psychology professor Paula Niedenthal thinks it does more harm than good.

Niedenthal: From our research, the optimal amount of time is never.

Ditmire: She studied college students to see if there was a link between pacifier use as a child and their ability to identify and express emotions. First, she asked how long they had used a pacifier. Then she showed them a video of faces expressing emotions and asked them to react.

Niedenthal: The first study showed that, in boys, the longer they had used a pacifier as a child the less spontaneous facial mimicry they showed while watching faces.

Ditmire: Babies learn by watching and a pacifier gets in the way.

Niedenthal: If you have something busy in your mouth all the way, it may block your spontaneous facial mimicry that you typically engage in while looking at other people’s facial reactions.

Ditmire: But that only happened with the boys. The girls reacted normally.

Niedenthal: It could be that a typically developing girl gets so much other input about emotions that the fact that the pacifier may inhabit facial reaction to other people is not a significant disruption.

Ditmire: Then she gave the male students a questionnaire to gauge their emotional response to people and situations

Niedenthal: We also found the longer the boys had used pacifiers the lower their scores were on the two kinds of important measures, emotional intelligence and respective component of empathy.

Ditmire: So if a man is having trouble relating to his partner, could the pacifier be to blame?

Niedenthal: I think that the developing literature shows that we have to look at each other, resonate with each other, we have to be open to doing that. Eye contact seems important, facial mimicry seems important. But it doesn’t really solve their relationship to blame it on the pacifier. That would be like blaming Mom.

Paula Niedenthal is a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.