From 'cultural tradition' to 'child abuse': Piercing a baby's ears can be controversial, but when do experts say it's OK?

Newborn baby with earring close up view sleeping
Dr. Alefiyah Malbari, a pediatrician at Dell Children's Medical Center, says ear piercing is generally considered to be safe for babies of any age, provided parents familiarize themselves with a few safety considerations in advance. (Photo: Getty Creative)

When you become a parent, you're immediately bombarded with decisions regarding your baby's well-being. Will you use cloth diapers or disposable? Will you co-sleep or put your baby in a crib? Will you pierce your baby's ears or wait until they're older?

The latter question has been the source of heated online debates involving everyone from celebrity moms to non-famous parents who share photos of their baby's new earrings on social media, only to be bombarded with critical comments.

Actress Hilary Duff first drew public piercing backlash in June 2019 when she posted a photo of her then 8-month-old daughter, Banks, with tiny studs in her ears. Some negative commenters accused Duff of inflicting unnecessary pain and discomfort on her child, while others questioned whether she had gotten little Banks' consent before going through with the procedure.

The actress beat critics to the punch the second time around when, in Nov. 2021, she shared a photo of daughter Mae, then 7 months old, with pierced ears, saying, "Yes! I pierced her ears today. Can't wait for the internet to call me a child abuser … again."

But it's not just celebrities who come under scrutiny for choosing to pierce their baby's ears. When Monica Hammack of Houston, Tex. shared photos on Facebook of her then 9-month-old daughter's newly pierced ears, she also received criticism from online commenters.

"I had people comment that I should have waited for her to tell me she wanted them and criticize me for not getting it done at a tattoo shop," Hammack tells Yahoo Life. "They also said I was teaching her to be materialistic because her first pair were tiny diamond studs."

Video: Hilary Duff shares photo of daughter's pierced ears

But for Hammack, who was born in Mexico City, Mexico, piercing her daughter's ears had an important cultural significance. In Latin cultures, she explains, infant female ear piercing is routine.

"In Mexico, it's customary to have girls' ears pierced at the hospital before they are discharged," she says. "I wanted my daughter to have the same tradition."

Hammack says she took the criticism in stride because, to her, "it was something so trivial," given the importance ear piercing had in her own family.

For other parents, the decision of when to pierce their baby's ears comes down to a desire to save their child from pain when they're older.

Jennifer Kremer of Sellersburg, Ind. took both of her daughters to have their ears pierced before they turned 2, hoping they wouldn't remember the pain of having it done at such a young age.

And, Kremer thinks her plan worked.

"When they were very young, they enjoyed getting new earrings and coordinating with their outfits," she recalls. "They are 18 and 15 now and both still wear earrings pretty much every day."

The Indiana mom sees both sides of the debate: While she never questioned her decision or received criticism for it, she understands why people would also decide to wait until their kids were old enough to ask to have their ears pierced rather than making the decision for them.

When does a pediatrician say it's OK to pierce a baby's ears?

Doctors say the decision truly is up to moms and dads: According to Alefiyah Malbari, a pediatrician at Dell Children's Medical Center and associate professor at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas, there's no specific age when babies should get their ears pierced.

In fact, Malbari says ear piercing is considered to be generally safe at any age, given parents familiarize themselves with a few important safety considerations.

Consider baby's vaccination schedule

"In general, most pediatricians would say to wait at least until your baby has received their first set of vaccines, which are typically given anywhere between 6 to 8 weeks of age," Malbari explains. "Many pediatricians would go a step further and recommend waiting until two weeks after your baby has completed their first big set of vaccines at their 6 month checkup."

According to Malbari, getting all of those vaccines out of the way before piercing a baby's ears protects against infections like hepatitis B, a rare but serious complication that can come from ear piercing.

"Whenever you put a foreign body into your skin, there's always a risk of infection," Malbari adds. "Local skin infections can often be treated with over the counter antibacterial ointments, but they sometimes they become more serious and require oral antibiotics."

How to care for a baby's ear piercings

To lower the risk of infection after ear piercing, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cleaning the piercings with rubbing alcohol or applying an antibiotic ointment two times a day for the first few days, gently rotating the earrings each day and not removing them for four to six weeks after the procedure.

"If you notice any redness or swelling, a foul odor or discharge or if your baby develops a fever or seems cranky, go to the pediatrician so they can determine the best treatment," Malbari advises. "Redness and swelling can also be signs of an allergic reaction, so it's important to speak with your pediatrician if you notice any of these signs."

What to look for when choosing a piercing facility

Malbari also stresses the importance of doing your due diligence when choosing a piercing location.

Whether they are using a piercing gun or a needle, she says the most important thing parents should do is "make sure whatever they are using is sterile."

And, don't be afraid to do some research,.

"The Association of Professional Piercers has an online database to help you find a piercer who follows standard safety procedures," she recommends.

Which types of earrings are best for babies

Malbari points out that small 14-karat gold or stainless steel studs are the safest earrings for babies because they're hard to pull out and there's a smaller chance of babies having an allergic reaction to the metal.

"You can even get safety backs that make it more difficult for [babies] to pull the earrings out," Malbari adds.

Her parting wisdom is simple: that parents rely on their pediatrician as the best resource for information.

"They know your child very well and know any health history that may make [ear piercing] more risky for them," she says. "They will be able to steer you in the right direction."

Hammack, whose daughter is now 3, says since those early days when she was criticized for piercing her baby's ears, she's learned only a parent knows what will work best for their child.

"Do what you want to do as a parent," she says, "and stand behind your decision."