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The Upsides and Downsides of Pacifiers


Babies are born with an innate sucking reflex for feeding, but babies also find sucking to be a soothing and enjoyable activity in itself. Pacifiers are a way to give babies an outlet for their sucking predisposition and to make them feel calm and reassured. The word “pacify” is right there in the name.

Generally giving infants and toddlers pacifiers is considered preferable to thumb sucking, but nevertheless, pacifiers can harm kids’ oral health when they’re not used properly.

One problem is that pacifiers can be a conduit for the exchange of bacteria. Sometimes a kid will drop a pacifier on the floor, and the parent may stick it in his or her mouth to clean it off. The parents’ thinking is that an adult can better handle the germs on a dropped pacifier than a little one can, but when an adult “cleans” the pacifier with their own saliva, they can transfer bacteria. These bacteria aren’t naturally present in kids’ mouths and probably wouldn’t find a way there otherwise. But once there, these bacteria can start to cause decay in the child’s teeth. So it’s best to give children clean pacifiers cleaned with soap and water or wipes.

Another mistake occurs when parents encourage their child to take a pacifier by first dipping it in sugar, corn syrup, or honey. Sugary substances create acids in the child’s mouth, acids which can wear down tooth enamel and cause cavities. Kids should learn to take a pacifier without the encouragement of sweets.

One reason pediatric dentists, like Dr. Camps, prefer pacifiers over thumb sucking is because it’s typically easier for kids to give up the pacifier habit than thumb sucking. Regardless of which one a kid prefers, the sucking habit should end at around age two and no later than age three. If it continues, it can be setting up the child for orthodontic problems down the road. Children’s mouths are somewhat pliable, and sucking can impel the oral cavity to start to mold around the pacifier or thumb. This causes the roof of the mouth to narrow and creates issues with tooth eruption. A prolonged time of sucking can also lead to jaw misalignment and slanting teeth.

If you’re having difficulty stopping pacifier use in your child, there are a variety of things to try like reward systems. Come see Dr. Camps for recommendations. Often just the child hearing from a dentist that it’s important to stop can help convince them.

Regarding prolonged use of baby bottles, children typically move on from them after their first birthdays so there isn’t much worry about orthodontic damage developing. But for baby bottles and sippy cups, parents should be aware of sugars in drinks. Juice isn’t recommended, and even milk and formulas contain sugar. This issue becomes mostly problematic with nighttime feedings when the sugars have a chance to settle on the teeth and aren’t washed away by saliva, since saliva production slows at nighttime. If a baby likes an evening bottle to help get in a sleepy mood, the solution is to either dilute the nighttime bottle or to switch it with a bottle of water afterwards to help wash away any formula that’s still present.

Baby teeth start coming in at around six months and serve an important function in the development of a healthy mouth. Good oral health practices begin young and following them will set your child up for a lifetime of smiles.

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