Does breastfeeding cause tooth decay in your child?

Nature knows best. If breastfeeding a newborn is an instinct for mothers of all species, then it must be right to even humans. Then why argue and fight natures way!!!?

Most of you new mothers must be fighting all the conflicting ideas on breast milk and breast-feeding in your minds. Let’s take a look on whats good and what’s not…..

Breastfeeding your child is important for your child’s health in preventing infections of the  respiratory system, middle ear infections,SIDS and obesity. Breastfeeding the child for upto 12 months of age is associated with reduced incidence of caries. In addition the nursing mothers have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

How does breastfeeding affect the oral health of your child?

  1. Streptococcus mutans is the main decay causing bacteria in your mouth. Breastmilk has antibodies that may help in stopping the growth of these bacteria. Lactoferrin, a protein in breastmilk actually kills S.mutans. The bacteria S. mutans may not be able to utilise the lactose, the sugar in breastmilk as easily as sucrose in other sources. So human milk does not cause caries.
  2. The length of time your child breastfeeds determines the health of the child with regard to future experiences with cavities, obstructive sleep apnea(OSA), speech, TMD, behavioural and emotional issues and dementia. The soft nipple adapts to the oral cavity and enables proper development of the baby’s oral cavity, breathing muscles and airway. Anything other than the mother’s soft nipple, that is firm, will negatively impact the oral development. Any firm object puts pressure on the infant’s oral cavity to do the adapting. The longer the child breastfeeds, the better is the development of the oral cavity. This creates more space for the teeth to erupt avoiding crowding, overjet and overbite problems and creating a wide airway.
  3. Other factors like genetics, use of pacifier for prolonged time or oral habits like digit sucking and mouth breathing may have harmful effects on your child’s oral health. The movement of the tongue by the infant during breastfeeding allows for proper development of the swallowing action of the tongue, alignment of the teeth, and shaping of the roof of the mouth. This movement of the tongue is unique to breastfeeding and cannot be simulated with bottles, pacifiers, or sipper cups.
  4. Breast feeding can reduce the incidence of baby bottle caries. Nursing bottle caries, as it is also called affects mostly the upper teeth of your child. The sweetened milk or sweetened water that is left in the child’s mouth overnight is the culprit. You may then ask if breastfeeding at night does not have the same effect as using a nursing bottle as both contain sugars? The answer is NO. Breastfeeding at night does not cause decay because
  • When the child suckles, the nipples are pulled back into the mouth. This prevents the pooling of milk in the mouth. As opposed to the “nipple” of the bottle that lies in the mouth and causes pooling of milk.
  • Milk from breastfeeding is expressed due to the active suckling action by the child. When the baby is asleep with the nipple in the mouth no milk is flowing into the mouth. With the bottle there may be no control over the flow of the milk.

It is confirmed by many researchers that mother’s milk does not cause decay. This does not mean the the child will not develop tooth decay. Several “outside” factors cause decay in your child. These are

  • Formula milk and the foods that the child eats contain sugars like sucrose. Sucrose is a good substrate for the S.mutans to thrive and flourish in the mouth. This causes decay.
  • The baby’s saliva is sterile when it is born. The transfer of harmful bacteria into the child’s mouth happens when you feed the child with spoons and utensils contaminated with your saliva. You should, hence take care of your oral health well. Also kissing on the child’s lips or chewing food for the child or keeping the child’s pacifier in your mouth must be avoided.
  • The baby’s gums have to be cleaned after every meal. Once the teeth come into the mouth, brushing of the teeth should begin. You have to pay attention to clean the child’s tongue.
  • You can continue to breastfeed the child even after the teeth come into the mouth. Cleaning the teeth well after every feed and not let the sugary food remain on the teeth is important though.

There are some other conditions that can act as predisposing factors for decay

  • Salivary disorders
  • Maternal or fetal illness
  • Stress during pregnancy
  • Poor dietary habits in the family
  • Poor oral hygiene habits in the family
  • Genetics

Breastfeeding is a natural process of feeding a baby. It has been practised for ages. Our forefathers had lesser decay in their mouths. Tooth decay is a chronic bacterial disease of recent times. It is hence important to modify your diet and lifestyle habits to keep your children decay free. Good oral hygiene habits and regular visits to your dentist will go a long way to maintain good oral health.