Pacifier Use and Short Breastfeeding Duration: Cause, Consequence, or Coincidence?

Cesar Gomes Victora, Dominique Pareja Behague, Fernando Celso Barros, Maria Teresa Anselmo Olinto, and Elizabeth Weiderpass

PEDIATRICS Vol. 99 No. 3 March 1997, pp. 445-453


Objectives. Pacifiers are related to a shorter duration of breastfeeding. However, it is unclear whether this association is causal, because confounding, reverse causality, and self-selection of mothers may play a role. These issues were investigated through a combination of epidemiologic and ethnographic research in southern Brazil.

Methodology. A population-based cohort of 650 mothers and infants were visited shortly after delivery and at 1, 3, and 6 months. The rate of complete follow-up was 96.8%. A subsample of 80 mothers and infants was selected for the ethnographic study, which included in-depth interviews and participant observations in the age range of 2 to 6 months with a mean of 4.5 visits.

Results. The epidemiologic study showed that pacifier use was common with 85% of users at 1 month. However, this was a dynamic process, with many infants starting or abandoning the pacifiers in any age range. Children who stopped breastfeeding in a given period were likely to take up the pacifier during that period. Further analyses excluded all infants not breastfed at 1 month of age and those who reportedly had breastfeeding problems, leaving 450 infants with full data. Intense pacifier users at 1 month (children who used the pacifiers during most of the day and at least until falling asleep) were four times more likely to stop breastfeeding by 6 months of age than nonusers. Users also had fewer daily breastfeedings than nonusers. After adjustment for several confounding variables, logistic regression showed that pacifier use was still associated with an odds ratio of 2.5 (95% confidence interval, 1.40 to 4.01) for stopping breastfeeding. The ethnographic analysis showed that pacifier use was widely regarded as a positive behavior and that mothers often strongly stimulated the infants to accept it. Although few mothers openly admitted that pacifiers might shorten breastfeeding, a considerable group effectively used pacifiers to get their infants off the breast or to increase the interval between feedings. The latter also had rigid breastfeeding styles that increased maternal-infant distance, had important concerns about objective aspects of infant growth and development, and were highly sensitive to infant crying. These behaviors were linked to intense comparison between themselves and other mothers and to a lack of self-confidence. Nonwhite mothers, those who delivered vaginally, and mothers of infant girls seemed to be more confident and less affected by these difficulties. The epidemiologic analysis confirmed that pacifier use was more closely associated with breastfeeding duration among nonwhite mothers and for normally delivered infants.

Conclusions. Pacifiers may be an effective weaning mechanism used by mothers who have explicit or implicit difficulties in breastfeeding, but they are much less likely to affect infants whose mothers are confident about nursing. Breastfeeding promotion campaigns aimed specifically at reducing pacifier use will fail unless they also help women face the challenges of nursing and address their anxieties. The combination of epidemiologic and ethnographic methods was essential for understanding the complex relations between pacifier use and breastfeeding.