closeup of someone wearing a necklace with several tiny pacifiers on itShare on Pinterest
Pati Gagarin/Stocksy United

There’s not a lot of information out there when it comes to pacifier use in adults with anxiety. But just because there isn’t a lot of research, it doesn’t mean there aren’t adults turning to pacifiers to soothe anxiety.

To get more information, we reached out to Gregory Cason, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles, CA.

What’s behind the human urge to use a pacifier, especially in adulthood? It’s unclear.

As an infant, though, you likely found suckling or using a pacifier soothing. It’s not a stretch to think that you might gravitate back to this as an adult in times of stress.

Cason offers another potential explanation, explaining that adults can develop an oral fixation and seek to soothe anxiety through oral means, like chewing on a pen or biting nails.

This idea of oral fixation comes from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories around the psychosexual stages of development.

Long story short, Freud suggested that, during the first year of life, the libido is found in the mouth. That’s why, according to this theory, infants tend to put just about anything in their mouth.

“The Freudian theory is that people with an oral fixation develop an unmet oral need in childhood,” Cason says.

As a result, they tend to meet those needs as adults through sometimes less-than-ideal behaviors, like pen chewing or nail-biting. Using a pacifier fits right in if you go with this line of thinking.

It’s worth noting, however, that many mental health professionals take issue with this theory, and there isn’t much evidence to back it up.

Again, it’s hard to say.

Cason views the use of pacifiers as a temporary fix. “The problem is that they don’t actually soothe overall anxiety, but rather temporarily decrease anxiety by meeting the ‘need’ for oral stimulation.”

That said, some people report that using a pacifier is a big help for managing anxiety, especially when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.

Even if you find it soothing, though, Cason recommends incorporating evidence-based anxiety treatments — like cognitive behavioral therapy — into the mix for long-term relief.

It might. There’s not a lot of info available on the dental effects of pacifier use outside of babies and children. In that age group, pacifier use can cause misalignment of the teeth and affect gum health.

Pacifiers can affect the teeth similarly to the way thumb-sucking can. And thumb-sucking is associated with:

  • malocclusions, or misalignment of the teeth
  • changes in the shape of the jaw
  • changes to the roof of the mouth
  • oral infections
  • speech problems caused by dental changes

Aside from dental damage, the only other physical health risk is the potential for infection from germs on the pacifier.

Surface bacteria are a problem if you don’t store the pacifier in a clean, dry place. The porous rubber top of the pacifier can also grow bacteria from the inside out.

Pacifier samples examined in a 2012 study were found to contain fungus and more than 40 different species of bacteria, including, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumonia.

Even with regular washing and boiling, a pacifier can continue to harbor and grow bacteria.

As for mental health risks, using an adult pacifier for anxiety may cause you to put off seeking more effective, long-term treatment, which could worsen your symptoms.

While using a pacifier might offer some tension relief and help you relax, the effect is only temporary.

Anxiety conditions can severely impact your ability to function and affect your relationships, work or school life, and physical health.

If you find that anxiety is starting to impact your day-to-day life, working with a qualified mental health professional can help you take back control.

Behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of both are likely to offer more long-term relief.

You can ask your healthcare professional for a referral to a therapist or find one through the American Psychological Association.

Not sure what to look for? Our guide to finding the right therapist can help.

There might not be much in the way of research on using a pacifier for anxiety in adulthood, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one who finds relief in it.

While it may ease your anxiety to some extent, it’s not a permanent fix or an entirely risk-free option. Therapy — and possibly a dentist — can help when you’re ready.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.