Breastfeeding is incorrectly blamed for many things – from hair falling out, to causing breasts to sag, and other things that just happen to occur when women are breastfeeding. Another issue that is often raised is the link between breastfeeding and cavities.
If you are a mother who is breastfeeding an older baby, toddler or child, you might have copped more than your fair share of flak from those who are ill-informed.
One thing you might have been told is that you have to give up breastfeeding, or at least not breastfeed at night, due to the risk of your child developing cavities. But is this actually true?
Can breastfeeding cause cavities in children?
Do you really need to stop breastfeeding, at least at night time, once your child gets beyond a certain age?
5 Facts About Breastfeeding And Cavities
To find out, let’s look at what the research tells us.
#1: Longer Breastfeeding Duration Might Increase Risk Of Cavities (But There’s More To It)
There is research to indicate that longer breastfeeding duration is associated with an increased risk of cavities in children.
There is also research to indicate that there is no conclusive evidence that a longer duration of breastfeeding increases the risk of cavities.
Confused? How can that be? Well, both these studies are right, in a way. Read on to find out why.
#2: Bacteria Causes Cavities
Certain bacteria, Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus, cause cavities. These bacteria feed on sugar and produce an acid that wears down tooth enamel and reduces plaque pH. It is this process that eventually causes cavities.
Different people have different numbers of these bacteria in their mouth. So people who are blessed with lesser amounts of these bacteria in their mouths might be able to eat a lot more sugary foods than people whose mouths have more bacteria, and still not get cavities.
#3: Breastmilk Does Not Cause Cavities
The main component of breastmilk is lactose – a sugar that is broken down into simple sugars (glucose and galactose). Because the bacteria that cause cavities feed on sugar, it would therefore make sense that breastfeeding causes cavities, right? Wrong.
Research has found that breastmilk does not cause cavities. It does not reduce plaque pH; neither does it damage tooth enamel.
It is thought that the antibacterial properties of breastmilk, due to its lactoferrin, actually inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause cavities.
OK, if breastmilk doesn’t cause cavities, then why is there a link between longer duration breastfeeding and cavities?
#4: Sugar And Breastmilk Together Are A Problem
When it comes to breastfeeding and cavities, breastfeeding per se is not the problem. But when breastfeeding and sugary foods or drinks in the mouth are combined, there is an increased risk of cavity development.
If children consume sugary food and drinks and their teeth aren’t regularly cleaned and rinsed with water, then bits of sugar stay in their mouths. When such children breastfeed, this sugar mixes with breastmilk, and this is what increases the risk of cavities.
#5: There Are Ways To Reduce The Risk Of Cavities
So, no, you don’t have to stop breastfeeding, nor stop doing so at night time. Rather, here are some things you can do to reduce the risk of cavities in breastfed children:
- Clean teeth regularly. Cleaning (and flossing) teeth is probably the best way to keep children’s teeth clean and healthy. Cleaning teeth removes any food bits so that they cannot interact with breastmilk when breastfeeding occurs.
- Encourage drinking of water. If children are encouraged to drink water, rather than fruit juices, cows’ milk or toddler formula, they will consume a smaller amount of sugar. Drinking water also helps to remove any food stuck between their teeth, and therefore helps keep their mouths clear of foods that promote bacterial growth.
- Chewing xylitol gum. Xylitol is a sweetener found in many fruits and vegetables. Research suggests it inhibits bacteria that cause cavities. The bacteria that cause cavities can get into a child’s mouth from her mother’s saliva (e.g. when a mother licks her child’s dummy or spoon before giving it back). Research has shown that a mother can reduce her child’s risk of cavities by chewing a xylitol-based gum.
If breastfeeding is going well for you and your child, you don’t have to stop because you are afraid your child might get cavities. Just be sure to be proactive about good dental hygiene measures, and speak with your dentist about other things that you can do.