Pacifiers are among the most aptly named baby paraphernalia, but what if, instead of curing crankiness, they are actually causing babies to be more unruly?
That’s what the latest research suggests: that binkies can be teeming with bacteria, yeast and mold that can actually sicken babies rather than soothe them.
Pacifiers breed biofilms, a slimy slick of bacteria that can affect the healthy balance of microbes in a baby’s mouth, according to a study presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).
“A lot of times when a child is cranky, the first thing a parent does is reach for a pacifier,” says Dr. R. Tom Glass, the study’s principal investigator and a professor of forensic sciences, pathology and dental medicine at Oklahoma State University. “But what are you using to treat the crankiness? It’s a vicious cycle.”
It’s not just unpleasant from an aesthetic perspective; biofilms can potentially increase the likelihood of colic or ear infections and could possibly heighten the risk of allergies or asthma, says Glass. “We’re hoping to alert, not panic, parents that this thing they’re constantly putting in their child’s mouth has the potential to become heavily contaminated with disease-producing germs,” says Glass.
To reach their slimy — if unsurprising — conclusions, researchers examined 10 used pacifiers from healthy babies. They diced up the devices, stuck them in a lab dish and waited for cultures to grow. Compared to new pacifiers, five of the used binkies were lightly contaminated and five were overrun with up to 100 million colony forming units (CFUs) of 40 different types of bacteria per gram; one pacifier had four different strains of staph, which can cause skin infections or, in more serious cases, sepsis.
(MORE: Bring Back the Binky? Study Finds Pacifiers Actually Boost Breast-Feeding)
A few studies have already suggested an association between germy pacifiers and increased incidence of colic and ear infections, so Glass and his colleagues plan to study that link further in future research projects.
Plenty of parents, however, are still wondering what the fuss if all about. Even brand-new moms like BabyCenter member Courtney Riggs are skeptical. The findings, she said, are just another attempt to “scare parents into another frenzy regarding baby products.” Corinne Allison, a BabyCenter member who has a 5-month-old daughter, notes that too much emphasis on cleanliness is not necessarily the best approach. “Germs are everywhere and if we constantly obsess over cleanliness and hypersanitation, we’ll be neurotic,” says Allison. “I clean the pacifier if it falls on the ground. I grab a fresh one if there are no cleaning supplies around. So far, so good.”
But if the latest news about the germs on pacifiers makes you want to toss them all out, consider this: they may be good for more than just soothing a cranky baby. Studies suggest that pacifier use has been linked to decreased incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), one of the major causes of death for infants under one year.
And there are ways to ensure that you’re putting your baby at risk whenever you pass the binky. Glass says that washing pacifiers thoroughly is critical. Scrub them well if they fall on the ground or plop them in a baking soda solution or a denture soak. Popping them in your mouth to clean them off before returning them to baby isn’t advisable, but Glass acknowledged that mom or dad’s mouth is preferable to their sleeve. Says Glass: “There are antibodies in saliva that will inhibit organism growth,” he says.
Keep an extra supply of clean pacifiers in a plastic baggie and be aware that pacifiers have a shelf life: no matter how well they’re cleaned, they still accumulate nasty bugs. Glass recommends tossing used ones every two weeks, by which point he says they’ve become “maximally contaminated.” “It’s less expensive to have many pacifiers than to have a sick baby,” he says.
(MORE: The Hidden Dangers of Baby Bottles, Pacifiers and Sippy Cups)