Sucking Baby's Pacifier

Your baby's pacifier falls on the floor. Before giving it back to your child, do you wash it in a sink or, perhaps reluctantly, clean it with your own saliva?


A new study suggests that a mother's spit -- and the bacteria in it -- may help prevent allergies in young children.


The research found lower levels of a troublesome, allergy-causing protein in babies whose mothers reported sucking on their infants' pacifiers, adding to a growing body of evidence that early exposure to microbes may prevent allergies in children.

"The idea is that the microbes you're exposed to in infancy can affect your immune system's development later on in life"

"The idea is that the microbes you're exposed to in infancy can affect your immune system's development later on in life" said Dr. Eliane Abou-Jaoude, an allergy fellow with the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.



Microbial exposure might prevent allergies

Research has shown that people who live near livestock, those who avoid dishwashers and babies born through the microbe-filled vaginal canal -- instead of via C-section -- are all less likely to develop allergies.


The new study, which hasn't been peer-reviewed, is "one more piece of data that early exposure to microbes helps prevent allergies," said Dr. Andrew MacGinnitie, clinical director of the Division of Immunology at Boston Children's Hospital.


"It's possible that sucking on a pacifier is correlated with other, more important factors that predispose or protect against allergens," he said, adding that mothers who suck on their children's pacifiers could also "let their kids play in the dirt, or their whole house could be less clean."

"What's very, very important to realize is that this was not a cause and effect study," she said. "This is not telling you, if you suck on your child's pacifier, they will not develop allergies."


For those who choose to do so, though, MacGinnitie doesn't see too many risks. "If the kid were sick, he or she could transmit an infection to the mom or dad, but if the kid is well, this would seem to be unlikely," he said.


And even if the pacifier falls on the floor, he added, "in general, the bacteria and viruses on the floor don't cause disease."



A decrease in allergy-linked proteins

To determine allergy risk, researchers looked for a protein linked to allergies. They tracked levels of that protein, the IgE antibody, in 74 infants whose mothers reported using pacifiers. No fathers were included in the research.


Just nine babies had mothers who sucked their children's binkies clean. But compared with the other children, those nine babies had significantly lower levels of IgE antibody, a trend that began when the children were about 10 months old.


The researchers tracked the babies for only 18 months, making it unclear whether lower IgE levels in infancy would translate to fewer allergies later in life.



Reducing your child's allergy risk

Abou-Jaoude's team looked at total IgE antibody levels, but researchers can also test for allergen-specific IgE levels, looking at how sensitive a child might be to particular substances, like eggs or dogs.


A 2013 study in Sweden did just that. Not only did researchers find that infants were less likely to have IgE antibodies against common allergens when their parents sucked their pacifiers, but they were also less likely to develop eczema and asthma by the time they were 18 months old.


Children who grow up with pets also tend to have a lower allergy risk, MacGinnitie said, but that might be explained by genetics. In other words, allergy-free parents who own pets might just give birth to allergy-free kids.


"Living on a small farm also probably helps," MacGinnitie joked. But he added that, for most parents, "that's probably not realistic."



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