Although the use of a pacifier can be beneficial to a baby’s health in certain respects, parents may want to monitor the use of sucking objects when the child grows older to protect dental health. Some guidelines and care for pacifiers is included in this article, as well as giving parents an awareness of the oral health risks associated with them.
The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that pacifiers are used by up to 85 per cent of American babies, and may be beneficial during the first six months of life. Sucking is normal, natural behaviour for babies. This is how they receive all of their nutrition in the first months of life. Some babies will even begin sucking on their fingers or thumb in the womb. Babies will also suck for other reasons. It is a soothing behaviour that can help them relax and sometimes even put them to sleep.
Studies have also shown a benefit from pacifier use in the development of jaw muscles, as well as possible decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome, and relieving pain from minor procedures (like vaccinations), but the downside is that they may expose babies to alarmingly high levels of dangerous bacteria.
Risks and dangers of continual pacifier use
Pacifier use is generally safe and effective in its job for the first two years of life but problems can arise with continued pacifier use after the age of two, which can endanger the child’s oral health going forward. Some of the dangers associated with continued pacifier use include:
- Risk of middle ear infections – This is due to the change in pressure equilibrium inside the ear caused by constant sucking.
- Improper growth or development of the mouth
- Misalignment of teeth (displaced teeth, overbites, cross bites and open bites).
- Increased risk of tooth decay
- Germ ingestion
- Sleep disruption – When infants grow used to having the pacifier in their mouth while sleeping, they can’t sleep without it.
- Thumb-sucking habit
- Mouth sores – Aggressive sucking may cause sores or ulcers to develop.
Best way to sanitise and care for pacifiers
Parents wouldn’t eat with a dirty fork, but they often think nothing of picking up a pacifier up off the floor at a mall and popping it back in their baby’s mouth, or putting it into their own mouths to clean it before giving it to their child. It is important for parents to realise pacifiers are easily contaminated and to do their very best job of keeping them clean in order to protect their baby’s health.
The shape and materials of pacifiers make them susceptible to bacterial organisms, including staphylococcus, which causes staph infections. If you choose to use pacifiers, there are easy ways to protect your baby’s health. The researchers advise the following precautions:
- Always wash a new pacifier prior to use.
- Any time a pacifier pops out of a baby’s mouth, it should be cleaned, no matter where it lands.
- Wash pacifiers with mild soap and water, then air dry. Make sure to remove all excess water from the nipple, where it can collect and cause bacterial growth.
- Also replace your baby’s pacifiers after an illness, to avoid re-infection.
- Check frequently for cracks, discoloration or tears in the pacifiers’ rubber. If damaged, discard or replace.
- Never tie the pacifier around your infant’s neck.
Taking the pacifier away sooner than later
To break the pacifier habit, taking the pacifier away sooner than later is the most effective strategy. If your child is under two years old, you probably have nothing to worry about but you should start trying to wean a child who is still sucking after his/her second birthday.
Remember that for many infants, weaning off the pacifier can be very difficult. Some kids are not only physically attached to the pacifier but emotionally attached as well. In most cases, children naturally relinquish the pacifier or thumb over time. As children grow, they develop new ways to self-soothe, relax and entertain themselves.
If your child is old enough to understand, your dentist can help explain the reasons for discontinuing the sucking behaviour to your child.
When to schedule your child’s first appointment
When taking a child to the dentist for the first time, parents should follow the “Rules of Ones” or “first visit by first birthday.” Children should see the dentist by the time they get their first tooth or reach their first birthday. That may sound too early, but it’s not. Your child’s first dental visit will probably be short – it’s just a chance for the child to get to know the dentist and the dentist’s office, and also a great opportunity for your dentist to count teeth, check bite, gums and other parts of the mouth to make sure everything is healthy.
Even if you take excellent care of your child’s teeth, cavities can still happen. The first dental visit is also a great time to ask any questions you might have about dental care for your little one’s baby teeth, and ways to prevent cavities, as well as to make sure you are doing everything right with your child’s oral hygiene routine. Setting up your child’s first dental visit is a step in the right direction, and every little baby step you take from there will prepare your child for a healthy dental future.