Public health officials, doctors, and the medical community agrees that breastfeeding is best for babies and toddlers.
One of breastfeeding’s many benefits includes its effects on teeth. Breast milk has been found to contain high levels of protective chemicals and produces relatively little acid in the mouth. However, some reports and studies have linked breastfeeding to tooth decay and others have not.
Specifically, the studies look at breastfeeding and early childhood caries (ECC). ECC is a devastating form of tooth decay that destroys teeth rapidly. Severe ECC typically shows up as brown, broken, painful teeth well before the third birthday. This is a bad start to future dental health.
Is breastfeeding really the cause of tooth decay in infants and toddlers?
To answer this question, we must look at the science of tooth decay:
- Tooth decay requires direct interaction between the bacteria that cause decay and a food or drink that bacteria can turn into acid. Children usually acquire these bacteria from their mothers around the time of their first tooth.
- Tooth decay is a disease that has periods of “attack” and “repair” of teeth. Several studies show that breast milk itself is not a good food for the bacteria that cause cavities. Chemical buffers like those found in breast milk help to turn off the attack and speed the repair.
- Tooth decay is made worse by frequent eating of foods that contain sugar. Eating many times a day also can speed up tooth decay. This is true even if the food is not one that especially helps tooth decay bacteria to make acid. Tooth decay occurs earlier and is more severe in children who are allowed to eat or drink frequently, with little break between snacks.
- Tooth decay speeds up the most at night. That’s because saliva flow slows down at night and during sleep. Saliva helps to protect teeth against decay. Any food or drink, including breast milk, consumed just before sleep or during sleep can stimulate the decay process.
It is clear to see that breastfeeding causes a very minimal risk of cavities in most children and can even be protective.
However, breastfeeding can lead to dental decay if:
- It is very frequent
- It occurs repeatedly throughout the night
- It is not followed by cleaning the baby’s mouth
You can take steps to protect your child’s teeth through proper care:
- Clean your baby’s teeth and gums with a damp cloth or a soft toothbrush after each feeding.
- Take your baby for his or her first visit to the dentist as soon as the first tooth erupts.
- Teach your baby to drink from a cup by his or her first birthday.
- Make sure your baby is getting the right amount of fluoride. If your town does not have fluoride in its drinking water, ask your pediatric dentist or pediatrician about fluoride supplements.