Friday, 4 November 2011

Is it child abuse to pierce a baby’s ears?

David and Victoria Beckham caused a stir when they had their son Romeo’s ears pierced at the tender age of just 2 years old (Socialite Life). However Romeo Beckham may be considered geriatric compared to many babies whose parents pierce their ears before they even leave the maternity ward. In light of this questionable practice, I am going to dispel the myths of baby ear piercing and rebut the arguments that pro-piercing parents give to defend their ‘choice’.

Parental discretion

Their first common argument is that parents do lots of things to children that they think are best despite not necessarily being what the child wants, and ear piercing falls into this category. Examples given include pinning down a child to change its nappy, brushing a child’s hair against their will, and changing the outfit of a protesting child.

I would argue that a child NEEDS to wear clothes, but they do not 'need' to wear earrings. It is necessary to change a child’s nappy and to put on fresh clothing. Dressing a child is a basic prerequisite of healthy childhood and refraining from doing so regularly would be classed as neglect. It is not necessary to pierce a child’s ears.

Gender recognition

The second argument given by pro-piercing parents is that it is often difficult to tell whether a baby is a boy or a girl. If its ears are pierced then people can immediately identify the baby as female. I would question the need to specify arbitrary gender roles so early. Why is it so important to know the sex of a baby? Most parents would be horrified to see a baby wearing lipstick and eye shadow, so why the desire to decorate them by punching holes in their ears? If it is necessary to ascertain a baby's gender for some reason, I’m sure asking the parent would suffice. Secondly it could be argued that, as ear piercing disproportionately affects girls, it exacerbates gender inequality.

Health gamble

Another pro-piercing argument contends that if parents get their children’s ears pierced as infants, they can ensure that the wound stays clean, doesn’t grow over and doesn't get infected, Furthermore, their baby won't remember the pain. Thus according to this argument, parents can actually save their child from the distress and pain they would otherwise experience if they got their ears pierced at an older age. Equivalence with vaccinations is suggested in that they are a momentary pain in infancy to save the child from later pain.

I would refute such claims, firstly on the basis that they are egotistically assumptive. It is impossible for a parent to know for sure that their child would have opted to get their ears pierced at an older age. Holm.S has pointed out that “the child might grow up and reject her parents’ tastes, perhaps later seeing them as instruments of patriarchal oppression, or as irredeemably bourgeois”.

Secondly and more importantly, by piercing, parents are exposing their babies to a greater risk of infection and malformation. A baby’s immune system is significantly less mature than an adult’s or an older child’s. The younger the child is, the weaker their defence system, so they are more at risk of an infection, and less likely to cope as well if they do get one. Studies have shown that up to 35 percent of persons with pierced ears have one or more complications, e.g., infection [77 percent], allergic reaction [43 percent], keloid formation [2.5 percent], and traumatic tearing [2.5 percent] (Simplot. TC and Hoffman. HT). The respondents in this particular study were adults. The rate of complication is likely to be even higher in babies. To put this in context, the rate of complications resulting from infant male circumcision is between 0.2% and 0.6% (CNN).

Contact dermatitis resulting from nickel exposure is common in ear piercings (Meltzer. D). Contact sensitivity to gold and localized argyria, a skin discoloration resulting from silver salts, have also been widely reported (Hendricks. WM; Sugden. P et al).

Furthermore, earrings can become embedded in the earlobe (Muntz. HR and Asher. BF). Some infants have needed general anaesthesia and the operating room to have such earrings extracted (Baby Zone).

Also, trauma to the pierced ear is common. Lacerations may occur after falls, rough and tumble play, or accidental pulling of an earring (Meltzer. D). “Many babies tug on their new earrings, and rip their earlobes. Playmates can also be a danger and can rip the earrings out without realising the pain they will cause” (Piercing Claims Specialist). Babies and small children are less aware of their bodies, so for example, a toddler who likes to throw her head to floor when she has a tantrum, wouldn't be considering the risk of banging her pierced ear and causing it to break the skin or worse. It is for this reason that many daycare centres, nurseries and schools forbid the wearing of earrings.

Moreover, the risk of aspiration and ingestion of earring parts is at its highest with babies and young children (Becker. PG and Turow. J). Although the dangers of choking can be reduced by ‘infant friendly’ studs; no earring will ever be 100% safe (Piercing Claims Specialist).

It is unsurprising that infections are the most commonly reported complications associated with piercing. Parenting website Baby Centre, in giving advice to parents, has commented that “your child will be constantly touching her ears and the pierced area can easily become infected” (Goodwin. M).  In babies and young children, an infection from an ear piercing could lead to hospitalisation (Baby World). As their fragile immune systems are prone to infection, if they become seriously ill, a baby with blood poisoning is in grave danger of losing their life (Piercing Claims Specialist). This is yet more worrisome when one considers that many newborns are pierced before they even have their first tetanus vaccination. In addition, the combination of the trauma inherent in the piercing process together with the ongoing presence of a foreign body furthers the risk of infection (Trupiano. JK et al). Such a break in the integrity of the skin can expose an infant to the danger of local infections such as cellulitis and abscesses as well as to systemic infection (Stirn. A). Common causes of infection include if the equipment used was not sterile, if the earrings used have dirty posts, or if the earrings are clasped too tightly. Anatomic variations, such as blood supply to the site, can contribute to an increased risk of infection after piercing, therefore there is no way a parent can predict exactly how their baby’s body will respond.

Sometimes an infection is so severe that a doctor will recommend that the piercing heal and close up, which can lead to keloid formation. Keloids are lumps or lines of scar tissue that have failed to heal correctly. They occur when the body over-defends itself and goes overboard, leading to large scar tissue. In their worst from keloids can be ugly disfigurements that embarrass a child as they grow older. Some keloids can be removed with the help of surgery. Typically, after surgery the ear cannot be pierced again in the same spot because the tissue in the lobe scars and becomes dense when it heals.

What’s more, not all ear-piercing businesses have suitable equipment or staff trained in working with babies and young children. It makes me shudder when I see parents taking their babies to Claire’s Accessories to be butchered by a 17 year old Saturday girl with a weekend training certificate. For instance, despite ear-piercing guns not being recommended for piercing babies’ ears, they are the most commonly used tool. The gun is very tight against the swollen earlobe, and the shaft is ridged creating an ideal place for pus and scabs to accumulate. These are hard to turn, and when turned often pull away the healing scabs, leaving newly exposed raw areas so healing takes longer. Furthermore, piercing guns are made from steal and plastic and cannot be sterilized. If your child is pierced with a gun, there’s a higher risk for her to contract hepatitis or another type of infection (Nguyen. DP). Guns are used hundreds of times and there is a significant chance of blood to blood contact (Rosenberg. R and Slivka. H). If someone with AIDS or other disease was pierced with the same gun the parent is subjecting their baby to the chance of contracting that disease.

Aside from the substantial health risks, piercing a baby’s ears before they have had a chance to grow can lead to embarrassing lopsided holes later in life. Some adults who have had their ears pierced as babies have expressed resentment. Here is a genuine comment posted on a parenting forum:

“I have holes in my ears - I didn't ask nor want them as a baby yet I got them anyway. They are also now uncoordinated from when I've grown so they look pretty stupid too. I hate mine, as there's nothing I can do to get them level, I'm stuck with it. I'd never do the same to my child.”

As for the contention that ear piercings are synonymous with vaccinations because they both pierce the skin and cause pain – I argue that this is nonsensical. Vaccinations are arguably for the benefit of the baby based on centuries of scientific research. Ear piercing on the other hand provides no benefit to the baby. It only benefits a parent's sense of vanity.

Violation of bodily autonomy

One of the biggest issues in the piercing debate, and arguably the most important, is the question of consent. A baby who has their ears pierced and grows up with earrings has no memory of the procedure, and no opportunity to protest. Some parents argue “my baby, my choice. It’s none of your business if I get my baby’s ears pierced”, but as I have maintained before in relation to infant feeding (here), if a parent is acting to a child’s detriment, it is everyone’s business.

The continued and widespread piercing of babies and young children is evidence that Britain continues to ignore the rights of children despite ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1991. Article Three of the Convention stipulates that the best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. If a baby were able to be asked whether it wanted ear piercings, it would most definitely say NO. Ear piercing does not enhance babies’ quality of life. Rather, it causes unnecessary pain and the potential for long term discomfort. No baby would want to be put through it, and as adults' role is to protect and care for their offspring, pro-piercing parents are abusing their baby’s trust. I believe that we do not own our children’s bodies and thus we should not have the right to make this sort of decision for them. There would be uproar if someone pierced a baby that 'belonged' to someone else, but its okay to do it to a baby one 'owns'.

Throughout their life, people who are pierced as babies have a permanent reminder that their parents had no respect for their bodily autonomy. To those who argue that ear piercing is not permanent, and that the earrings can be removed so that the holes close up; Firstly, a baby cannot ask for the earrings to be removed. The longer they are left in, the greater the risk of permanence. Secondly, whether piercings become permanent depends on a range of factors unique to the individual, such as the intensity of the ear tissue as well as the ability of each individuals healing rate. The holes also become permanent when a fistula is created by scar tissue forming around the initial earring. It is impossible to predict how each baby’s body will respond. Parents are playing Russian roulette.

The gift of personal responsibility

The decision to pierce the body should be left to the individual. When a child is old enough to understand that the process costs money, that there will be pain, and that regular and diligent aftercare is required, then they can make an informed choice. Waiting until a child is old enough to comprehend such issues teaches them personal responsibility and such an approach can be applied to all sorts of other life choices in various forms. Dunlop.DG et al have argued that “children should be involved in their health care according to their age and maturity rather than becoming ‘passive recipients’ of their parents' views”.

Furthermore, if vanity has any place at all in the lives of babies surely it should not extend to putting a needle and a piece of metal into their bodies. It is tantamount to saying “my baby isn't pretty enough in her natural state – I must adorn her with jewellery”. It is upholding a mentality that little girls need to be conscious (or their parents be conscious) about their looks from an age where they should be allowed to freedom to simply be children - before the pressures of adulthood and their gender are thrust upon them. It also gives a negative message to a young child; that mutilating the body is acceptable for the sake of what our culture regards as beautiful. Babies are perfect and beautiful as they are.

Abuse is a spectrum

Some people argue that referring to piercing babies as ‘abuse’ trivialises actual abuse. They contend that the abuse word is thrown around too lightly and that it is doubtful that any child who has had their ears pierced will grow up to think they have been abused by their parents. In response to this argument, I would like to highlight that there is a spectrum of abuse, with torture at one end, and perhaps light smacking at the other. 'Abuse' is not a blanket term. Some have argued that it is wrong to weaken the concept of abuse by including ear piercing within its parameters. However in the 1950s it was commonplace to beat your child with a wooden spoon. I'm quite thankful that the concept of abuse has weakened to include this.

The NSPCC defines physical abuse as "inflicting pain or injury". It has been observed that the ear piercing procedure “is painful and often performed without anaesthesia or analgesia, and because of the pain it constitutes an immediate harm” (Holm. S). Piercing may not be on the same level as some cruelty that sadly occurs, but not all forms of abuse have to be to the extreme. It is naive to suggest that because piercing is significantly less serious than sexual abuse, torture, etc that it can therefore not be abusive whatsoever.

I would argue that the only reason piercing a baby’s ears is commonly tolerated and not thought of as abuse is because it is culturally accepted; and for no other reason than this. Why is it only okay to pierce a child's ears? If I was to pierce my daughter’s nose I’m sure the majority of people would be horrified - because it’s not a social 'norm'. This is notwithstanding that piercing a baby’s nose, eyebrow, tongue, lip, navel, etc is perfectly legal. In fact, any body part is fair game aside from the nipples and genitalia.

What about cultural practice?

The last pro-piercing argument I am going to examine is that of multiculturalism. In some societies ear piercing is a central part of their culture. In Spain for example, the majority of baby girls have their ears pierced from birth. Likewise in Mexico baby girls have their ears pierced in hospital before they leave. In Hindu culture, most boys and girls have their ears pierced before they are 12 days old. For a girl the left ear is pierced first and for a boy it’s the right. This is based on the Ayurvedic principles of nerves leading to the brain. Ear piercing is also mentioned in the Bible and for some Christians is said to be a sign of faith.

It follows that to prohibit the piercing of babies and young children is to violate religious and cultural rights. However I feel no need to adapt my anti-piercing stance for the benefit of other cultures. If we consider a rights hierarchy, which features religious rights, I would contend that the right to be free from physical harm features higher in the hierarchy than the right to religion. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights recognises that some rights trump others in this manner. Female circumcision is widely and rightly recognised as a barbaric breach of human rights, despite the fact that the practice is religiously and culturally subscribed in some communities.

In conclusion...

The idea of parents piercing their baby's ears underlies the more worrying concept of parents imposing ideals on their children and treating them as accessories. Causing unnecessary pain to a child so they can look a desired way is questionable parenting at the very least. Ear piercing of babies and young children cannot be claimed to be in the immediate best interest of the child, and given the risk of permanent damage it seems questionable whether it should be within the protected area of parental discretion. Is piercing a baby’s ears child abuse? If you deliberately hurt a child for no reason other than vanity then how can it be anything else?

The fact that we are talking about a vulnerable group such as babies who cannot speak up for themselves makes this an appropriate area for legislation. A Government-approved petition has recently been set up requesting a legal age restriction on all body piercing:

Click the ‘like’ button bellow to spread the word on Facebook


Salem Witch Child said...

While I won't go so far as to say piercing is abuse, I will say that any body modification that is unnecessary is wrong. Baby girls suffer piercing, baby boys circumcision. Neither is necessary.

Mario said...

They both have something in common; neither seeks the consent of the subject, and both have a risk of severe harm. With modern sterility and medication these risks may now be tiny but they are still unnecessary risks. Just because 'abuse' is such a strong word doesn't mean that both non censenting body pearcing and circumcision shouldn't be considered abuse

malissataylor said...

I have spent a lot of time in my head about this one. I have a baby girl and I wouldn't dream of piercing her ears. It doesn't seem necessary, but I think using the word, "abuse" is really dangerous. Abuse, as I understand it, comes from a very ugly, angry place. The abuser is generally attacking his/her victim in very negative terms. I like that you talk of abuse as something that happens on a spectrum and this made me look at the way in which I treat my beautiful gifts when I get angry with them. For this, I really appreciate your words. Thank you. However, I don't believe that "abuse" is the right word.

ohyeaimmuslim said...

I am pregnant with my first child. It is going to be a boy and I have to say "whew" i am so relieved that I am not going to have to decide if I want to pierce my child's ears since little boys getting their ears pierced is not a pressing issue as it is for little girls in the US.

One thing though that rang my alarm when I was reading this was your comment about female circumcision. The reason is because while you condemned female circumcision despite it being a cultural/religious practices across the world, you didn't mention male circumcision at all. And male circumcision is DEFINITELY something practiced around the world for cultural and religious reasons-- far more than female circumcision. And yes it does snip away thousands of nerves that are suppose to give a more sexually gratifying experiencing for the adult male.

I MUST ask you to blog entry on male circumcision and your opinion. This is something that I am debating with my son myself. I find both argument very compelling and I just don't know what to do.

Alpha Parent said...

ohyeaimmuslim - My stance on male circumcision of babies for non-medical reasons is identical to my stance on ear piercing of babies. The reason I highlighted female circumcision is that it is more widely recognised as barbaric despite being culturally subscribed.

mummytotheCs said...

Liked, and shared - I hope you don't mind that I've also shared this on a parenting Forum, Natural Mamas, as I feel there will be many like minded women on there, and hopefully they will help to increase the petition numbers. Thank you for writing this, you've put into clear words my discomfort and utter distaste for this horrible practice.

Alpha Parent said...

Thank you mummytotheCs. More exposure will help the cause.

Cerissa Beveridge said...

Considered ABUSE for getting a childs ear pierced, really??!!!

Valls Family said...

a lot of this information is greatly out dated. You may want to check your sources before your next blog post. A lot of the issues and risks raised were raised YEARS ago and have since been resolved, ie: ear guns being unsterile. As for the risks of earring becoming embedded - the chance is SO low. Again, this is outdated. Risks for infection and yanking out the earring don't really make sense in this post as that happens with babies that are over a year old. Children who are days/weeks/months old do not recognize the fact that they have ears, let alone touch them or yank them which is why the risk is incredibly low. Moreover, if a child grows up to "reject their parent's style" and wants to take out the piercings, fine! You know what is left? Barely even a pin-prick sized scar, if anything at all. While this is well written, you are all over the place with your facts, age range, and studies.

Tornado Twins Mommy said...

Wow what an utter an negative distinction you mothers have on the out look of life.

Danielle said...

to compare ear piercing to circumcision is absurd.
I had my ears pierced by choice at 15yrs old, and got 7 in each ear... they didn't hurt a bit to have done.
a circumcision is excruciating irreversible pain. The procedure cannot be undone. Earrings, don't want em, take em out, they tend to close over. I took one set out and couldn't get them back in a month later after having them pierced for 12 years!

NikicaB said...

well I just look on this pics in library and my decision is clear.. Babies are frightened, scared, crying.. I could never do sth like that to my baby for no reason. gender of baby?! Come on, put a little pink sweet dress and everybody will know it's a girl.. Right? And religion purpose.. I really don't want to comment that! I'm crying with my baby when it has do get some shot, mean injection, when it's ill or sth.. And is crying cause it's painful, but that's necessary... How could I then watch my baby to cry for no reason?!

Dean said...

Key point Danielle- *YOU* had your ears pierced. One of points of the article is the fact that it's the baby's body and we don't have the right to inflict unnecessary pain on them.

Secondly, I had a second set of ear piercings when I was in Sixth form, and they hurt like hell. Clearly we all have different pain thresholds.

My ears were done as a baby, and I haven't worn earrings in YEARS, and the (uneven) holes are still there.

Stephen Wheeler said...

This blog posting is absolutely right. To me it illustrates the confusion between rights and responsibilities. While pierced ears can be considered very attractive, no one can consider it their right to make a permanent, painful, risky cosmetic decision concerning another person's body, even if that person is their infant child. It is parents' responsibility to make sure their children make informed decisions for themselves regarding their appearance, which only the children themselves have a right to make.

Bento Bits said...

Not necessarily. Many people who are pro FMG believe it is in the best interest of the child. Sam could be said for corporal punishment and other things we commonly accept as being abusive. The motives do not have to be evil. Abuse is not defined by the motivation of the abuser, abuse is defined by the action of the abuser and the experience of the abused.

Nancy said...

My daughter was 10 months when we chose to get her ears pierced and she never cried at all. They did it A LOT quicker than the video and the ladies were super nice. I guess it depends on where you go?

Claudia said...

So waiting until she asks, then suddenly earrings are no longer vain and unnecessary? Why not completely forbid your daughter from getting them pierced forever if you think this way? I had my ears pierced when I was days old. My mom said I didn't even cry when the doctor used a single needle (not a piercing gun). I never had a problem with infection or pulling. An older child would more likely touch their ears and get an infection actually. Would I have my baby's ears pierced whenever the time came? I don't know yet/ don't care! Even if I grew up hating having my ears pierced, then I just wouldn't wear earrings, simple. They might close up. If not, who cares! They're tiny holes in your ears! Not a large gaping scar that affects my body negatively. If you're bitter over a tiny hole in your ear you didn't want, you're the vain one. And the whole consent argument is odd to me, too. Then why not wait to name your child just in case they don't like the name you give them. And isn't just dressing your baby in the typical blue for boy and pink for girl just as vain and unnecessary? And for those who compare it to female mutilation or other forms of child abuse, getting your ears pierced does not come close to these horrifying, life long traumatizing acts. This is judging others' parenting. Don't like them, don't get them! They are not your children, and they are not being traumatized by an ear piercing. And no I did not grow up to be vain and superficial just because I had my ears pierced as a baby. I'm quite the tomboy actually and always have been and my mom didn't even dress me in pink frilly girly things as a baby. I just had my ears pierced, something I don't even remember. Worry about more important things.

ihatejudgmentalpeople said...

Just because you wouldn't pierce your kids ears or circ your sons and you breastfeed until your kid is four, doesn't make you some super parent, and it doesn't make parents who get their childs ears pierced or circed bad parents. I had my ears pierced when I was a baby, and I don't remember a single thing. When I got my one year pictures done, that scared me more than having holes in my ears. She will not grow up vain because she has pierced ears. Most little girls want them pierced anyway, so no, it's not abuse.

Cerezita said...

Ear piercing is not necessary but you will see later on in life that most girl will want to have earrings especially in their teens but are always afraid to get their ears pierced. I had mine made as a baby and I don't hate my parents lol but the opposite, I'm glad I don't even remember about it.

Flexo said...

I HATE it when people say that. My son is circumcised, and it was done because his foreskin was literally cutting off his circulation to his penis. The doctor said to me, "it's either now, or 2 weeks from now in the ER, your choice."
So maybe don't put a blanket statement on circumcision. Ear piercing is totally un-necessary, however.

Sylvia Zakusilov said...

As a nurse practitioner who works in an ER, I see multiple cases of ear lobe infections and/or imbedded earings each month. I do think that it is medically risky to pierce a newborn's ears- too many complications in my mind. Put a pretty little bow on top if you want people to know your baby is a girl!!
Also, I agree with many other posters about male circumcision. It is painful, risky (100 babies in the US die from it each year), and is irreversible. Medical doctors should NOT be performing them as they are permanently removing healthy tissue from a baby that cannot tell them "no". It removes most of the nerve cells in the penis and can lead to sexual difficulties later on. A study in Norway showed that only 1 in 40,000 men actually needed a medical circumcision done.

Hayley Parkin said...

I have a 6 year old daughter, who does not have pierced ears, despite asking for them. However, on the flip side, my mum refused to let me have mine done whilst I lived in her house, so I had them done when I moved out at 16. And honestly.... I wish she had done it whilst I was younger. I had to take them out just a few months after I had them done because my daughter kept pulling them, and they closed up pretty quickly, so I had to have them done again!

However, as others have mentioned, the use of the word 'abuse' is worrying. No matter where you would place it on a spectrum! You repeatedly state that it is for the vanity of the parents- but that isn't always the case. Sometimes it is simply to stop them going through it later in life. If they grew up and didn't like the piercing, they can simply remove the earrings. Sure, you have two minute little holes. That is hardly the end of the world! I have bigger scars now from falling over in the playground when I was 4 than I do from my pierced ears!

Going back to the word 'abuse'- I consider that very dangerous. My mum broke a wooden spoon whilst spanking me when I was younger... and I don't even consider THAT abuse. You have deliberately chosen a very emotive word. I can't help but feel if you believed your argument was strong enough without it, you wouldn't have needed to repeatedly include it. Sometimes it is best to write a very unbiased account, and let people come to their own conclusions.

Whilst I actually agree with a lot of what you say, if I HAD made the decision to pierce my daughters ears already I would not consider it abuse and would resent you calling it that. Try ringing up the NSPCC to report that 'abuse' and let me know how far you get.

I can't help but think people should start worrying about the bigger things in life. That 'girl' you quoted above had wonky piercings because they were wonky when they were done, not because of how she grew, by the way. Now THAT she can blame her mother for. Good news for her: people don't spend their time staring at other peoples earlobes. They may notice them if they are wearing earrings, but very rarely if not. And surely, if you are being intimate enough for someone to notice that, then they should be intimate enough for that person not to care.

At the end of the day, parents have the right to make decisions for their children that they believe is best. Whether you agree or not doesn't really matter (no offence there, it is just life). I would counter that parents splitting up can cause more harm than pierced ears.

Char Esser said...

I'm against infant ear piercing for a personal reason: I was assigned female at birth, but realized I was transgender fairly young. I never look at my baby photos now because it's, frankly, humiliating. It makes me feel like my parents fully wanted me to be a girl, and that I'm disappointing them by being transgender.
Simply put, piercing your baby's ears to make sure people know it's a girl is cissexist--you are assuming your infant identifies as female.

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