Pacifiers can be a lifesaver when your baby is young, but they can also turn into a bad habit with potential dental and speech side effects. It's not a given, however, that pacifier use will lead to lisping or other speech difficulties. Whether a pacifier affects your child's speech depends on how often and how long he uses it, among other things. Additionally, many toddlers and preschoolers lisp, up until around age 4 1/2, whether or not they use a pacifier or suck their thumb, according to speech language pathologist Caroline Bowen.
Why Children Lisp
Lisping occurs because your child doesn't place his tongue in the proper position when he voices the letters S or Z. To say /s/ properly, your child must place the tip of his tongue just behind the upper teeth, close to the roof of his mouth but not actually touching it, according to the Chicago Speech Therapy website. If your child's teeth have shifted because of pacifier use, his tongue placement will be incorrect for making the /s/ sound. Most lispers either push the tongue between their teeth or touch the teeth with their tongue when they use words containing the /s/ sound, which turns the /s/ into a /th/ sound.
Pacifier's Effects on Speech
Pacifiers can have several effects on your child's speech. If he has it in his mouth much of the time, it's difficult to talk around it without letting it drop to the floor. To hold onto to the pacifier, he might modify the position of his tongue when he talks. If he uses a pacifier for too long, it can change the positioning of his teeth. A University of Washington and Chilean study published in the October 2009 issue of BMC Pediatrics found that children who used a pacifier for more than three years had three times the incidence of speech problems.
When to Reduce Use
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using the pacifiers only for naps and bedtime, up until around 1 year of age. However, if you can't manage this -- and many parents can't, for their own sanity -- the AAP also reports that thumb sucking and pacifier use rarely cause dental malocclusions or other problems if your child gives them up before age 5.
Substituting the Thumb?
Encouraging your child to suck his thumb isn't a good alternative to pacifier use. The thumb causes the same sort of malformations that a pacifier does, and it's not possible to leave his thumb at home when you go out. To try and eliminate long-term pacifier use, start decreasing its use around age 6 months and always give a soft toy or blanket along with the pacifier, speech language pathologist Heidi Hanks recommends on her website, Mommy Speech Therapy. That way, if you remove the pacifier, he still has another comforting object to hold.