May 6, 2013 at 5:38 AM ET
If you suck your child's pacifier clean, there’s no need to be embarrassed. You may actually be helping your kids avoid eczema and asthma, Swedish researchers say.
“It was surprising that the effect was so strong,” says pediatric allergist Dr. Bill Hesselmar of Queen Silvia Children’s Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, lead author of the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Of 136 infants who used a pacifier in their first six months, 65 had parents who reported sucking the pacifier to clean it. In those children, both eczema and asthma were strongly reduced when they were examined at 18 months of age. At 36 months of age, the protective effect remained for eczema but not for asthma.
The study didn’t indicate how mom and dad’s saliva was protective or whether it was filtering out germs, but spit-cleaning the binkie had no effect on respiratory illness -- meaning babies aren't more likely to get cold or flu viruses from their parents sucking on the paci. "Transmission of colds/virus infections are common in a household because of "close contact", independent of if the parent's suck on their child's pacifier or not," Hesselmar says.
When parents clean a pacifier with saliva, they're introducing gut microflora, the microscopic organisms -- mostly bacteria -- that live in the digestive tract. “We know that if infants have diverse microflora in the gut, then children will have less allergy and less eczema,” says Hesselmar. “When parents suck on the pacifier, they are transferring microflora to the child.”
Scientists hypothesize that those tiny organisms help prevent allergy, eczema and asthma by stimulating an infant’s developing immune system.
“The most exciting result was the eczema,” says Christine Johnson, chair of the public health department at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. “I’m a bit more skeptical about the asthma findings because asthma is hard to measure before a child is five or six years old.”
Michelle Berman, mom of three girls under age 7, says her oldest daughter, who never used a pacifier, had serious eczema until age 5. The two younger girls both used pacifiers and had little trouble with the allergic condition.
“We have two dogs, and if I thought there might have been dog hair on the pacifier, I probably stuck the pacifier in my mouth to clean it,” says the Santa Barbara, Calif., biologist. “I probably didn’t think it was good, but I didn’t think it was bad.” While first-borns can be more prone to eczema, studies indicate, still Berman wonders if her sucking on the pacifier helped protect her younger girls.
It’s up to parents whether they choose to clean the pacifier with soap and water or boil it. But Hesselmar encourages moms to lick the pacifier if a child was delivered through caesarean section. C-section babies don’t receive the hefty dose of microbes that vaginally-delivered babies do and can be more prone to allergies. “If they are using a pacifier and those parents think it’s OK to suck on the pacifier, then yes, I would recommend it,” Hesselmar says.
Tots throw their pacifiers on the floor all the time and some worried parents may not be able to get around the “yuck” factor of a less-than sterile paci. But Hesselmar claims parents needn’t worry about picking up nasty germs themselves if they stick it in their mouths to clean. “I haven’t heard of anyone getting ill from it,” he says. “There isn’t much bacteria on the floor.”