Can Breastfeeding Cause Tooth Decay? 5 Things To Know

Can Breastfeeding Cause Tooth Decay? 5 Things To Know

The presence of bacteria in the mouth is normal.

However, tooth decay can happen when there is an imbalance between beneficial and disease causing bacteria.

If this balance is altered in favour of the growth of acid-producing bacteria on the enamel surface of teeth, then tooth decay (dental caries) may occur.

Can Breastfeeding Cause Tooth Decay? 5 Things To Know

The main bacteria causing tooth decay is Streptococcus mutans.

There are various factors which can increase the risk of tooth decay. These include frequent exposure to sugary foods, salivary disorders, poor oral hygiene, Streptococcus mutans entering the mouth, genetic factors etc.

A recent study has claimed prolonged breastfeeding increases the risk of having dental caries.

But is this true? Can breastfeeding contribute to the development of tooth decay?

Here are five things to know.

#1: Breastfeeding Is Important For Mouth, Jaw And Face Development

Tooth decay aside for the moment, breastfeeding is important for mouth, jaw and face development.

For example, breastfeeding may facilitate the development of muscles of the mouth and face. This may be important for later speech development.

Also, children who are breastfed for longer periods have fewer dental malocclusions.

In addition, breastfeeding is important for a range of other health outcomes as described in Benefits Of Breastfeeding – What Are They Exactly?.

#2: There Is No Medical Consensus About Link Between Breastmilk And Tooth Decay

Rather than cherry picking individual studies, it’s important to examine what the body of evidence says. This is what systematic reviews provide us with. Systematic reviews assess the scientific rigour of previous studies, combine data from many studies, and look for trends in data.

With regards to breastfeeding and tooth decay, the latest systematic review published in 2015 concluded:

“Breastfeeding in infancy may protect against dental caries. Further research needed to understand the increased risk of caries in children breastfed after 12 months.”

Currently, there is a lack of studies that look at children older than 12 months, while also assessing tooth decay risk in children who are breastfed, bottle-fed, children not bottle or breastfed, alongside specific breastfeeding practices, consumption of sugary drinks and foods, and oral hygiene practices.

This limits researchers’ ability to tease out the risks attributable to each.

So, although some health professionals strongly believe breastfeeding beyond 12 months increases the risk of tooth decay, the truth is we still don’t know for sure if this is or isn’t the case.

Interestingly, there might be reasons why breastfeeding may not actually be implicated in tooth decay.

#3: Breastmilk Has Anti-infective Factors

Breastmilk contains a host of anti-infective factors. Some of these factors (e.g. lactoferrin and α-lactalbumin and IgA) may act to inhibit Streptococcus mutans from binding to teeth

#4: The Sugar In Breastmilk May Not Be Able To Be Used By Streptococcus Mutans

Research has found Streptococcus Mutans may not be able to use the sugar in breastmilk (lactose) as readily as sucrose, which is a type of sugar found in some formulas.

Also, lactose in designed to be digested and broken down in the intestine, not in the mouth.

#5: The Biomechanics Of Bottle Feeding And Breastfeeding Are Different

When a baby drinks from a bottle, milk gets released into the front of the mouth and can pool around the teeth. When breastfeeding, a baby draws the nipple far back into the mouth and the breastmilk gets released towards the soft palate and gets swallowed without remaining on the teeth.

So, overall, there is insufficient evidence implicating breastfeeding with tooth decay. Other factors such as oral hygiene and the consumption of sugar drinks or foods may be more influential in tooth decay rather than breastfeeding.

It’s important for dental professionals to encourage parents to start optimal dental hygiene with their children as soon as the first tooth erupts, and to keep the intake of sugary foods and drinks to a minimum.

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Renee Kam is a mother of two daughters, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.

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