Breastfeeding Protects Toddlers Teeth from Cavities

by Jackie Hershwitz

Toddler TeethNearly 45 percent of kids under six have experienced cavities. Almost one-fourth of children have untreated tooth decay or cavities.

Tooth decay affects children in the United States more than any other chronic disease, including asthma. It can lead to problems eating, talking, playing and learning if not treated properly.

The medical community agrees that breastfeeding is best for babies and toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics says breast milk is "uniquely superior for infant feeding."

Breastfeeding's many benefits extend to its effects on your baby's teeth. Breast milk contains high levels of protective chemicals. It also doesn't produce much acid in the mouth. These facts suggest that breastfed babies should have an advantage as they grow when it comes to healthy teeth.

You've been breastfeeding your baby for awhile. As your child is heading toward toddlerhood, it's natural to be concerned about your toddler and the onset (or not) of early cavities. What have you discussed with your friends or read online?

How do you know if your baby's at risk? Should you limit nursing? Can you do anything to protect your toddler from early childhood tooth decay?

Studies have raised concerns that breastfeeding, especially prolonged and nighttime feedings, might lead to early childhood cavities. Other studies show that there is no link between tooth decay and breast milk or breastfeeding.

All About Baby's Teeth

"The health of a baby's teeth begins with conception," Ted Spence, a doctor of naturopathy and family dentist in Virginia says. "A mother's diet is critical, as is the child's diet after birth."

Around the sixth week of your pregnancy, your baby's teeth began to develop under the gums. A diet rich in calcium, phosphorus, vitamin C and vitamin D helped those tiny teeth form strong enamel. Other factors, such as certain medicines can harm your embryo's developing teeth.

Breastfeeding Protects Against ECC

Now that your baby's teeth have popped through the gum, you'll want to do all you can to guard them. A study from the University of Athens suggests that breastfeeding your baby and toddler may actually prevent cavities, rather than cause them.

Early dental cavities destroy teeth fast. Researchers pinpointed early childhood tooth decay's main culprit, the bacterium Streptococcus mutans, or S. mutans, in the 1980s.

These bacteria can be passed from you or a caretaker's saliva to your baby. S. mutans is "site-specific." It needs at least one tooth in the infant's mouth and sugar as food. It produces acid as a byproduct. Over time this acid can cause cavities.

A high bacteria count isn't the only factor. Significantly high correlations have been found between early tooth decay and pregnancy complications such as traumatic birth, cesarean sections, maternal diabetes, kidney disease, and viral or bacterial infection.

The baby's risk factors seem to be premature birth, Rh incompatibility, allergies, gastroenteritis, malnutrition, infectious diseases, and chronic diarrhea.

Breastfeeding puts most toddlers at very minimal risk of cavities. It offers protection for many children, but under specific conditions, breastfeeding may push the limits of a child's capacity to ward off tooth decay.

Nighttime Nursing -- When It's a Problem

"I breastfed all my babies on demand, including nighttime feedings," Julie, a moms of six, shares. "Only one developed early cavities. Why would one baby have cavities and not the others?"

If small defects in the enamel form during pregnancy, your baby's teeth become more vulnerable. Although breast milk does discourage bacterial growth, its protective effect might not counteract the combined effect of the bacteria and the sugars in the milk.

La Leche League International says that, "a small percentage of at-risk breastfed children develop dental caries in spite of breastfeeding, not because of it." In a baby who does have a genetic problem, weaning will not slow down the rate of decay and may speed it up due to lack of lactoferrin.

You can give your child the benefits of breast milk and help avoid tooth decay if you follow these guidelines:

• Work with your midwife or doctor to improve your dental health during pregnancy. Eat foods that promote your baby's tooth growth.
• Breastfeed your baby for at least a year, as the AAP recommends.
• Schedule your baby's first dentist visit about six months after that first tooth appears.
• Limit how often your toddler eats foods that contain sugar.
• Establish sleep routines so your baby can get to sleep on their own.
• Encourage brushing. Offer sips of water to rinse off the teeth after your toddler eats.
• If your baby's teeth appear susceptible to decay, bring out the big guns -- limit sugary food, cut back on nighttime feedings, brush daily and load up on foods rich in vitamin D.

How are your breastfeeding baby's teeth? Have you taken special precautions to help prevent cavities?