The findings of a recent study on breastfeeding and childhood dental health indicate a connection between long-term breastfeeding — two years or longer — and the child’s increased risk of tooth decay. Fortunately, it’s not the milk that’s to blame; it’s the way the child holds its mouth during the process. The risk for dental cavities in infant teeth is stronger for breastfed as well as bottle-fed babies unless the little one gets a little help with dental care that prevents tooth decay from setting in.

Benjamin Chaffee, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), initiated the study when he was working toward his doctorate at UC-Berkeley. He and his team of researchers followed the feeding schedules of 458 babies that live in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

The parents of each of the babies reported to the research team when the baby reached 6, 12, and 38 months of age. Special attention was paid at the 6-month and 12-month markers:

  • 6 Months: Parents reported how much breast milk and other liquids, including formula and fruit juices, the baby consumed the previous day.
  • 12 Months: Parents described the liquids and solid foods the children were eating at this age. The researchers were especially concerned about 29 solid foods that included fruits, veggies, beans, organ meats, sweet biscuits, cookies, candy, chocolate milk, honey, and soft drinks.

At each of the three age-defined milestones, each baby was examined by a dentist.

The research team discovered almost half the children were drinking prepared infant formula by 6 months but most of the formula feedings were gone by 12 months. Further findings include:

  • 40% of the children breastfed between 6 and 24 months had some tooth decay by study’s end.
  • 48% who fed longer than two years developed tooth decay.

Chaffee says his study doesn’t suggest breast milk causes cavities. The refined sugars the children consumed probably contributed, too.

William Bowen, not a part of the Chaffee study, says the problem arises with the physical aspect of feeding from a nipple or bottle. Bowen, professor emeritus at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Oral Biology in New York, says the act of suckling seals the teeth from the saliva in the mouth. Saliva breaks down bacteria that cause dental cavities.

For optimum dental care in infants and small children, Bowen suggests using a Q-tip or cloth moistened with water to remove any excess food from the child’s mouth after feeding by any method. Breastfeeding mothers are advised to be meticulous about their own dental health while nursing, as any cavity-causing bacteria from mom’s mouth passes through her bloodstream and into her milk. Her baby is exposed to mom’s bacteria at every feeding.

Source: Raven, Kathleen. “Breastfeeding past two years linked to infant tooth decay.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters. Mar 14, 2014. Web. Mar 18, 2014.