Sucking a Baby's Pacifier Clean May Have Health Benefits

In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, scientists report that infants whose parents sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose parents typically rinsed or boiled them. They also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders.

The findings add to growing evidence that some degree of exposure to germs at an early age benefits children, and that microbial deprivation might backfire, preventing the immune system from developing a tolerance to trivial threats.

The study, carried out in Sweden, could not prove that the pacifiers laden with parents' saliva were the direct cause of the reduced allergies. The practice may be a marker for parents who are generally more relaxed about shielding their children from dirt and germs, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.

"It's a very interesting study that adds to this idea that a certain kind of interaction with the microbial environment is actually a good thing for infants and children," he said. "I wonder if the parents that cleaned the pacifiers orally were just more accepting of the old saying that you've got to eat a peck of dirt. Maybe they just had a less 'disinfected' environment in their homes."

Studies show that the microbial world in which a child is reared plays a role in allergy development, seemingly from birth. Babies delivered vaginally accumulate markedly different bacteria on their skin and in their guts than babies delivered by Caesarean section, and that in turn has been linked in studies to a lower risk of hay fever, asthma and food allergies. But whether a mother who puts a child's pacifier in her mouth or feeds the child with her own spoon might be providing similar protection is something that had not been closely studied, said Dr. Bill Hesselmar, the lead author of the study.

In fact, health officials routinely discourage such habits, saying they promote tooth decay by transferring cavity-causing bacteria from a parent's mouth to the child's. In February, the New York City health department started a subway ad campaign warning parents of the risk. "Don't share utensils or bites of food with your baby," the ads say. "Use water, not your mouth, to clean off a pacifier."

Despite the study's findings, parents should exercise common sense when cleaning pacifiers that have been dropped into very germ-laden situations, such as a garbage can or bathroom floor.

Image: Red pacifier, via Shutterstock

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