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.

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.

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: