Does Breastfeeding Cause Tooth Decay?


It has been established without any doubt that breast milk is the best possible food for infants and babies, and as far as nutrition and protection from infections go, nothing can beat it. However there is one point of controversy in the whole ‘goodness of breastfeeding’ school of thought, and that is ‘does breastfeeding cause tooth decay’ or effect dental health?

Though it is frequently said that breastfeeding, especially at night, will cause tooth decay, a valid link has not been made between breastfeeding and cavities, like letting a baby sleep with a bottle at night can cause “baby bottle mouth”.

Dental decay in baby teeth was rare before bottles were used to feed babies and formulas as a substitute for mother’s milk were developed. Two dentists, Dr. Brian Palmer and Dr. Harold Torney, in their study of tooth decay in children, have done extensive research on human skulls from 500 to 1000 years old. Obviously these children were breastfed, and probably for an extended length of time. The two dentist’s research have led them to conclude that breastfeeding does not cause tooth decay.

One reason for night time bottles causing tooth decay is that the liquid stays in contact with the teeth for a long period due to pooling of the liquid inside the mouth. Whereas in breast milk, the milk doesn’t flow unless the baby is actively sucking. Moreover, breast milk enters the baby’s mouth behind the teeth, and, if baby is sucking, s/he is also swallowing. So the pooling of milk does not happen.

The cause of tooth decay is streptococcus mutans, a bacteria present in plaque. These bacteria combine with food sugars to form an acid which actually causes the decay. The bacteria streptococcus mutans thrives in a combination of sugars, low amounts of saliva and a low ph – level in the saliva. Some people are thought to have increased levels of these bacteria, putting them at a higher risk of tooth decay. After a baby gets teeth, s/he can get this bacteria from saliva to saliva contact with the mother or some other close relative or caregiver.

According to Dr. Brian Palmer, “Human milk alone does not cause dental caries.” Until recently, the only studies that had been done were the effects of lactose on teeth, not the effects of breast milk as a whole. Breast milk contains lactose or milk sugar which helps in causing tooth decay, but it also contains lactoferrin which actually kills the decay causing bacteria streptococcus mutans. According to an article published in ‘Paediatric Dentistry’ human breast milk is not cariogenic.

More studies by Dr. Torney has led him to conclude that under normal circumstances, the antibodies in breast milk will counteract the bacteria in the mouth that cause decay. But if there are small defects in the enamel, then the protective effect of breast milk is not enough to prevent decay due to the combined effects of bacteria and milk sugar. According to this research, a baby who is only breastfed and no supplementary bottle or even juice or solids are given to him/her, will not have tooth decay unless he is genetically predisposed, e.g. has soft or no enamel.

The conclusion of all this research seems to be that breastfeeding does not cause tooth decay.

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