My 9-year-old got an early birthday present a little while ago. A pair of pierced ears and careful instructions for how to care for them!
It was never a consideration to pierce my daughter’s ears before now. As a mom with multiple tattoos and piercings myself, it might seem that I would be more “relaxed” about having my kids pierced. On the contrary, as someone who has made thoughtful changes to my own body, it was even more important for me to wait until she was old enough to understand and consent to the procedure.
It doesn’t come up that often, but I have had a couple of people ask why we didn’t just pierce her ears when she was a baby so she wouldn’t remember the pain. I had a lot of reasons to wait, but the most important one was bodily autonomy. We talk a lot about consent and bodily autonomy around here, and I think piercing falls squarely in this area. My child’s body belongs to her. It’s not my body, and not my choice.
But wait! As a parent there are many times I make decisions on behalf of my kids. Off the top of my head, vaccinations, going to school, going to bed, and brushing their teeth are all things my kids have disagreed with, and yet I still insisted they do them. There’s a difference though between the decisions I’m required to make for their health and wellbeing, and those that are purely cosmetic. I don’t think I have the right to make unnecessary, cosmetic changes to her body without her understanding and consent.
Bodily autonomy wasn’t the only reason I waited though. Here are nine more.
Piercings hurt. No, they don’t hurt for very long, but I still didn’t want to cause my baby pain without a good reason. Earrings just didn’t seem like a good enough reason to me. Now that she’s older, I can support her making her own choice to endure the discomfort of being pierced.
No reputable, trained professional will pierce an infant’s ears. If I had wanted my daughter’s ears pierced as a baby, then I would either have had to do it myself or take her to a mall piercer where an untrained salesperson would use a plastic, spring-loaded gun to shove blunt earrings through her earlobes causing unnecessary pain and trauma to the tissue. Neither seemed like a good idea.
Not every child will want pierced ears as an adult. It’s difficult to find hard numbers, but one source estimates around 83% of American women have pierced ears. (If someone has numbers for Canada, let me know.) While that’s a sizeable majority, that still means 17% don’t. I didn’t pierce my daughter’s ears before now because I didn’t know which group she would fall into, and I didn’t think it was my place to decide for her. If I had pierced them and she decided later on that she didn’t want earrings, there was no guarantee that the holes would close up or that they would heal without scarring.
Early piercings can become crooked or uneven. Remember that ears grow. Even if a piercing is placed correctly as an infant, the holes may become uneven as their earlobes grow. It’s not just a cosmetic concern too. Crooked or poorly placed piercings can be uncomfortable or even painful. Ears actually keep growing your entire life, but they grow and change the most in our early years. By age 8 or 9, the rate of growth is usually slow enough not to be an issue anymore.
Babies and toddlers don’t know to be careful of their piercings. They can accidentally rip out earrings and lose them, swallow them, or even cause permanent damage to the ear itself. Earrings can also catch on clothing, bedding, baby carriers, car seats, etc, damaging their tiny, delicate ears.
Young children can’t keep their new piercings clean. Piercings take an average of 6-8 weeks to heal, and they require conscientious aftercare every single day to keep them clean and heal properly. Before now, I don’t think she would have been old enough to properly care for them herself.
Piercings can become infected. There is always a risk of infection any time the skin is broken. Approximately 20% of earlobe piercings become infected. While the vast majority can be treated at home, any infection carries the risk of sepsis which can be life-threatening. Serious complications are very rare, but why risk it for an unnecessary, cosmetic procedure I don’t even know if my child wants? On a related note, children should definitely not be pierced until they are fully vaccinated against tetanus.
Babies can’t tell you if there’s a problem. Personally, I’m allergic to a lot of metals, particularly nickel, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover my kids have allergies as well. Irritation and infections can happen quite quickly, and if a child is pre-verbal or too young to explain, it may take some time to discover.
Piercings are not medical procedures. Some people equate piercing a baby’s ears to getting vaccinated, because both involve needles and are done without consent. That’s a hugely inaccurate comparison though, because vaccinations are an essential medical procedure required to protect kids from serious illnesses, whereas piercings are purely cosmetic. There were literally no benefits to piercing my daughter’s ears as a baby, and plenty of risks for infection, poor healing, or just plain old regret. On the other hand, I couldn’t see a downside to waiting until she was a little older.
Piercing Needle or Gun?
If and when your child is ready to get pierced, please take them to a professional piercer and not a hair salon or mall jewelry store. Professional piercers go through rigorous apprenticeships requiring hundreds of hours of learning and practicing under the supervision of an experienced piercer, along with training in infection control and bloodborne pathogens. An untrained retail clerk will at best have watched a video or practiced on a foam ear a few times. (This thread from people who’ve been “trained” at the mall is eye-opening!)
A reputable piercer will only use disposable, hollow needles and equipment that’s been sterilized in a surgical autoclave. Since piercing guns are plastic, they can be sanitized, but they can’t actually be sterilized or they’d melt. Piercing guns basically shove the earring through the earlobe at high speed, which causes far more damage than a sharp, sterile needle. Holes from a piercing gun will take longer to heal and are more likely to end up uneven or to develop keloid scars, whereas professionally done piercings will heal cleaner and faster.
Keep in mind that piercing guns are spring-loaded, which means they’re loud when they go off right next to your ear. That noise can be frightening for some kids. I’ve had piercings done both way, and honestly needles simply hurt less too.