Attention, all followers of the five-second rule! A study on what's really clinging to your baby's pacifier may be enough to rattle your inner germaphobe.
What's the dirt? According to new research presented at a recent meeting of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, pacifiers may be magnets for some pretty menacing germs, like Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Klebsiella pneumoniae, and mold and other bacteria.
In the study, researchers placed the nipples from 10 used pacifiers in lab dishes to see what kinds of cultures grew after 24 and 48 hours. Five of the used pacifiers showed light bacterial contamination, but five were heavily contaminated with germs—with levels reaching as high as 100 million colony forming units (CFUs) per gram (brand new binkies have below 100 CFUs per gram, by comparison). Researchers cultured 40 different species of bacteria from the 10 pacifiers. One of the most contaminated pacifiers contained four different strains of staph (yikes!).
What may be even more alarming to parents is how babies' saliva reacts with a dirty pacifier. Contaminated pacifiers grow a "biofilm," say researchers, a slimy coating of bacteria that changes the normal microbe balance in the mouth and is particularly resistant to antibiotics. Biofilms can lead to inflammation that may be connected to colic or ear infections, and could be related to depression, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome later in life. There is even evidence that interactions between germs and the immune system can lead to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases.
"Research shows pacifiers have their benefits, such as soothing infants and even protecting against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but they're easily contaminated and parents need to do a better job of keeping them clean," advises Jay Bullard, MS, manager of the Microbial Forensics Research Laboratory at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and one of the researchers involved with the study.
But before you put Baby in a hazmat suit, know that some critics of the study are saying that perhaps these germs are there for a reason—as a way to help a baby's immune system develop resistance to bacteria. After all, up to 85 percent of children use pacifiers, but 85 percent of children don't develop, say, pneumonia. "A dirty pacifier may be a good thing," Dr. Bruce Hirsch of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, tells WebMD (via the Boston Globe).
"Exposure to multiple types of bacteria early on in life can help an infant develop and sustain a healthy immune system."
Still, if you want to know the best ways to keep a binky clean and germ-free, Bullard offers a few simple steps:
- No "Oopsies!": When a pacifier pops out of baby's mouth, it should be cleaned, no matter where it lands. Wiping it off with a tissue is better than nothing, says Bullard, because it prevents biofilm build-up and removes some of the germs.
- Wash and dry: The most effective way to kill germs and get rid of biofilm is to wash the pacifier with dish soap and cold water and let it dry in the open air. Another effective remedy is to soak the pacifier in a baking soda solution—one teaspoon of baking soda to eight ounces of water, and then allow to dry.
- Keep a spare: Try to have several clean pacifiers on hand—stored dry in a clean baggie.
- Don't get sentimental: Pacifiers should be cleaned daily and discarded every two weeks, or sooner if they show signs of wear, ripping or build up.