Is it Cruel to Pierce Your Baby’s Ears?

There’s a petition circulating to make baby ear-piercing illegal, and it currently has 40,000+ signatures of support. Susan Ingram, who created the petition, is asking the UK minister of state for children and families to set a minimum age requirement for ear piercing and make the practice illegal for parents of babies and toddlers.

“It is a form of child cruelty,” she writes on the petition. “Severe pain and fear is inflicted upon infants unnecessarily. It serves no purpose other than to satisfy the parent’s vanity. Other forms of physically harming children are illegal — this should be no different.”

Ingram’s campaign to make baby ear-piercing illegal has sparked a heated debate among parents far beyond the UK. As I sat in my home in New Jersey and watched a report about the petition, I tenderly played with the lobes of my 6-month-old daughter’s ears for quite possibly the millionth time since she was born — and the debate raged on in my mind.

I was 30 weeks pregnant on my 30th birthday and my husband gave me two pairs of diamond stud earrings: one for me, and one for our soon-to-be-born daughter. I always knew I would want to pierce my little girl’s ears at some point, I just hadn’t decided when I would have it done. 

Now that I had a fantastic starter pair of earrings on my hands, I thought maybe we’d just pierce her ears right away. A close friend of mine told me that she got both of her daughters’ ears pierced shortly after they were born, right there in the hospital. She wanted the piercing to be done by a doctor with a sterile needle, and her hope was that her babies wouldn’t remember the experience as newborns. In search of more opinions, I trolled Facebook in the late-night hours (preggo-somnia) and surveyed my girl-mom friends’ photos. I reached out to a few of them to ask why they had (or hadn’t) pierced their baby girls’ ears, and they were all confident in their decisions. I was stumped. I placed the box of tiny diamond studs in my hospital bag and brought them just in case I decided to have my daughter’s ears pierced in the hospital as well.

When my newborn was placed into my arms, however, I took one look at her ears (that were hairy, by the way!) and thought, Oh, no. This tiny person was so perfect; I couldn’t possibly make a permanent mark on any part of her body. No, way.

Flash-forward almost seven months. The friends of mine who gave birth to little girls in the past year or so remain completely divided. My daughter even has two “birthday twins” and of course, one has her ears pierced and the other does not. Every once in a while, I’ll stumble upon that box of sweet little diamonds and gently touch the pair that rest in my own ears. I adore coordinating ensembles with my daughter and also love the idea of her wearing something special that symbolizes our love for her. Just as I’m blissfully envisioning a little sparkle in her ears, however, a violent flash of her screaming under the needle is followed by perhaps an even more violent flash of her with an earring lodged in her throat. I snap out of it and put the earrings back.

Then, a little while later, I’ll think about the slew of friends, acquaintances, family members, and former colleagues who have pierced their baby’s ears. The girls are all fine. It’s not even a topic of conversation; the little girls just have pierced ears. End of story. And of course, there’s what happened to my own mother. She had always planned to take me on my tenth birthday as a celebration of my reaching double-digits. But, on my sixth birthday, a girlfriend of hers took me out to lunch and for some light shopping. I came home with pierced ears.

Even as a first grader, I could see the betrayal and loss all over my mother’s face when we returned home. I immediately understood that the act had overridden her desire and natural right to ceremoniously take me to get my ears pierced. I think about that stolen rite of passage now, as a mom. If someone else got Willow’s ears pierced behind my back, or if she went ahead and did it as a teenager without chatting with me about it first, I know it would feel like a punch in the gut. Maybe I should just rip off the bandage and do it now? Eliminate those risks entirely and simultaneously save her the anxiety that leads up to the act?

The UK petition has made my inner debate so much worse. A part of me wants to believe these people are extremists who are over-dramatizing a parental choice. Here in the U.S., the American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s little risk to piercing your baby’s ears when you follow specific guidelines, including having your baby wear simple gold post earrings and cleaning her piercings frequently. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

However, it’s hard to argue with Ingram’s point that piercing a baby’s ears “serves no purpose other than to satisfy the parent’s vanity.” I like to think I’m not really a vain parent, but what is my purpose here? When you get right down to it, the fact is that to pierce an infant’s ears is to subject her to pain for the purpose of aesthetics. Yikes! And yet, I can’t bring myself to fully come around to the concept that it’s cruel, or that it should be banned. It all just seems so extreme, considering that ear-piercing in infants has been around for centuries. 

There’s no real expiration date on the choice. If I wait long enough and my daughter comes to me asking to get her ears pierced, I’ll know that it’s the right time and we can move forward with it. I might decide earlier than that to just bite the bullet (or at least, get the gun fired up) and have the act performed on her in a sterile environment that I can trust. (Yes, I have the name and number of a plastic surgeon who specializes in infant ear-piercing saved in my phone).

My problem with the petition, I guess, isn’t so much the opinion that piercing a baby’s ears is a bad choice; it’s that the petition vilifies a time-honored tradition that so many good, loving parents uphold. As parents, we all have a series of choices to make and many of them will differ from the parents in the home next door. I don’t think it’s fair to negatively label parents who get their infant’s ear pierced. But I also haven’t yet figured out if it’s fair to pierce my own daughter’s ears.

The debate rages on in my mind while I watch to see what happens with the petition in the UK. And those tiny diamond studs sit in a hidden jewelry box with absolutely no idea when they’ll make their grand debut.

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