Does Breastfeeding Raise the Risk of Early Childhood Caries (Tooth Decay)?

by | Jun 12, 2024 | Children's Oral Health | 0 comments

Breast milk provides optimal nutrition for infants. It’s uniquely tailored to their needs, with the right balance of easily digestible, bioavailable nutrients. Its immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that protect infants are unparalleled.

Breastfeeding promotes the mother’s health, as well, and bonding between mother and baby.

What you might not realize, though, is that breastfeeding is important for good orofacial and dental development, too.

How Breastfeeding Affects Dental Development

The movements of the mouth and tongue during breastfeeding are what encourage the proper growth of the oral structures.

The sucking mechanism itself helps exercise the tongue and face muscles, leading to optimal growth and development of these structures. But that’s just the start.

During breastfeeding, the infant’s tongue naturally presses against the soft and malleable upper palate. This pressure helps widen the upper jaw. The forward and backward movements of the tongue and jaw stimulate forward growth of the lower jaw.

When the jaws grow to their full potential, there’s plenty of space for the teeth to come in straight and strong, with no crowding or malocclusion. Studies have shown that children who breastfeed are less likely to develop a bad bite – and thus are less likely to need orthodontic treatment later.

Breastfeeding also encourages the development of proper tongue posture and nasal breathing, which is also crucial for good craniofacial growth and development.

Yet you sometimes hear that breastfeeding raises the risk of early childhood caries (ECC), or tooth decay in the primary teeth. Trouble is, that may not actually be the case, according to a new scientific review, published this past spring in the journal Nutrients.

What the Science Shows on Breastfeeding & Tooth Decay

Searching five major medical science databases, the researchers found 31 relevant studies that met their criteria, involving more than 15,000 preschoolers. Most of these were cohort studies. This is a kind of study that looks at a group of people who have something in common. Researchers then follow this group over several years to see how different things they’re exposed to affect their health.

The remaining studies were case-control studies, which compare two similar groups of people, one of which has a particular health condition (cases) that the other lacks (controls). The results can tell us something about potential causes or risk factors of the condition.

In analyzing the data, the research team found no significant difference in decay between kids who were breastfed and those who were not. More, a special analysis suggested that breastfeeding might actually offer some protection against ECC.

Certainly, the study has its limitations, especially as there were a lot of differences in how the 31 studies were designed. “Further research is required,” the authors note, “employing consistent methods and addressing all the confounders.”

Until the results of such studies are published, which can provide a more assertive answer regarding the relationship between breastfeeding and ECC, health professionals should follow the recommended guidelines of the WHO and the guidelines of their local health ministry. They should encourage mothers to continue to breastfeed as long as they desire to provide the infants with the benefits of breastmilk, as well as provide oral health education to the mothers that focuses on good oral hygiene practices for the baby and healthy food practices to decrease the risk of ECC.

Most important, hygiene-wise, is to always clean your infant’s mouth after feeding. To do this, just dip a gauze- or cloth-covered finger into warm water and then lightly rub the baby’s tongue, gums, and insides of the cheeks with it.

As soon as the first tooth emerges, you can use a soft-bristled, kid-friendly brush and a fluoride-free toothpaste. By the time they turn 3, you can start teaching them to brush on their own.

Here’s more on how to give your child a healthy smile for a lifetime.


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