Retired football star David Beckham was criticised for giving his four-year-old daughter a pacifier in August 2015. He defended himself, saying it comforts children best when they are not feeling well or have a fever.
Well, Beckham might know everything about football, but when it comes to raising babies, he faces a storm of differing opinions.
Here’s what doctors say are the pros and cons of giving babies a pacifier to suck on.
Yes, it’s useful
Pacifiers are useful when you are trying to calm or distract a crying baby, say, when he is about to undergo a painful immunisation shot, says Dr Mary Varughese, an associate consultant with the division of general ambulatory paediatrics and adolescent medicine at the National University Hospital (NUH).
“Babies have a natural need to suck, and this sucking action can help to relax them and make them feel secure,” she says.
“This self-soothing action also helps them fall asleep easily during naps and bedtime.”
Some studies show that pacifier use is associated with a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in infants.
Dr Varughese says: “The actual mechanism is not fully understood, but it could be that a baby with a pacifier in his mouth has an altered arousal threshold.”
Still, opinion is currently divided over whether to routinely offer pacifiers to babies as a SIDS deterrent, she adds.
But there are risks
Even though pacifiers can come in handy, they are not without risks.
Dr Varughese says they might pose a strangling hazard if attached to the baby with a cord or ribbon.
Also, some babies could have a latex allergy.
Pacifier use increases the risk of fungal infection (known as thrush) in the mouth, as well as recurrent middle-ear infections, Dr Varughese says. And in the early newborn period, pacifier use could adversely affect breastfeeding, she adds. The baby might, for instance, reject the mother’s breast.
“If parents are considering using a pacifier for their baby, it should be offered only after breastfeeding has been established – most likely after the first four to six weeks.”
Don’t use it for long
In the long term, pacifier overuse could lead to dental problems, which might cause difficulties with, say, chewing or speech, experts caution.
The best time to start weaning a baby from the pacifier would be between the age of six months and a year, says Dr Varughese. During this period, she notes, the risk of SIDS is considerably reduced and middle-ear infections become more of a problem.
The longer you wait, the harder weaning could be as your child might grow to depend on the pacifier. If you cannot wean your child off the pacifier by the time he’s a year old, do so before he turns two or three.
Related: How to break the pacifier habit
Dr Rashid Tahir from The Kids Dentist, a private clinic at Camden Medical Centre, says children should no longer be on a pacifier by the time they turn three.
“The use of a pacifier might influence the growth and development of the face and dentition – the jaws, tongue, facial muscles and alignment of teeth.”
The paediatric dentist says pacifier-induced problems are not uncommon. They include:
• Increased protrusion of the upper and lower front teeth, giving the appearance of “buck teeth”.
• An anterior open bite. Here, the upper and lower front teeth fail to meet when the back teeth make contact.
The child cannot chew efficiently with the front teeth because they do not make contact, says Dr Rashid.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, prolonged pacifier use could also affect growth of the jaws and bones that support the teeth.
Thumb or finger sucking, if done for prolonged periods, has a similar effect, says the academy.
However, a pacifier habit is often easier to break, it adds.
“Dental effects are generally reversible and unlikely to cause any long-term problems if the habit is discontinued early,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“It is important to counsel families to help children break the habit before the permanent teeth erupt, preferably by age three.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
Related: How to break a thumb-sucking habit