In short, technically,the answer is, none. But this little gremlin of a myth seems to crop up quite often, Ive noticed. It first came to me when I had our first child, and a very well meaning family-member, who had just come back from the dentist with her kiddy (who’s teeth had suffered quite a few caries, thanks to sleeping with a bottle), promptly advised me to not breastfeed my newborn at night anymore.
I was initally very taken aback by the pure absurdity of her statement, but then quickly realised that she mistakenly thought then that all milk has this effect on babies’ teeth, AND that babies need to drink. Newborns,moreso, around the clock, lest you let them starve! I graciously pointed out to her that breastmilk did not have the same effect. However, on second thought, I should have actually taken the time to truly explain what I meant, and how this is so.
Years later, I still think of that conversation, especially when I overhear or am pulled into conversations, or read discussions about breastmilk and tooth decay. It only stands to reveal just how many women out there are still being fed this same misinformed piece of advise.So please, allow me to share what I’ve learnt about this topic.
First up, let this be clear:
Exclusively breastfed infants are not immune to decay, as a number of other factors play a role in the possibility of baby developing tooth decay.
However, breastfeeding, itself, DOES NOT cause tooth decay.
And thats the myth, we’d like to dispel here.
So, hopefully without boring you, understanding the basic nitty gritties is a good place to start. You see, Steptococcus mutans, is the bacterium that causes tooth decay. It uses any food sugars that may be present on the teeth to produce acid. (Or actually produce as a by-product.) Sugars like those found in some formula milk, juice or solids.
So why was breastmilk raked in as a culprit as well? Breastfeeding, particlarly when lying down to nurse baby to sleep at night, was painted with the same brush as babies left to fall asleep with a bottle at sleeptime. Well, until relatively recently, the only studies that had been done were only on the effects of lactose (milk sugar, which breastmilk does contain) on teeth, and not the effects of complete breastmilk with all its components.
When in fact, breastmilk contains a specific protein called Lactoferrin, which actually kills Steptococcus mutans. Pretty badass, eh? In fact, in the studies done, (extracted) teeth that were left submerged in breastmilk, actually became stronger the longer you left it in there! What’s more is that as Rugg-Gunn and colleagues put it, Steptococcus mutans may not actually be able to use lactose, that sugar found in breastmilk, as readily as sucrose, which is found in most formula milk.
Which it essentially means that, according to these studies, and aside from very specific genetic exceptions, breastmilk in fact strengthens babies’ teeth.
Its all in the delivery
Aside from major content differences, formula milk is also very different to breastmilk in terms of delivery into baby’s mouth. That’s of course assuming breastmilk is being given straight from source (the boob,people), as opposed to bottle, feeding cup, spoon or syringe. Apparently the manner in which the milk enters the mouth, is also key, as there is a vast difference between sucking on a bottle and sucking on the breast.
In bottle-feeding, the milk is released into the front of the mouth and pools around the teeth, whereas in breastfeeding, with correct latch,the nipple is drawn right towards the back of the mouth, right at the soft pallette, and the milk is released into the throat, stimulating the baby to swallow. Also when a baby falls asleep using the bottle as a sleep prop, the teat continues to leak any remaining milk/juice into the baby’s mouth. And with baby sleeping, this often pools up in baba’s mouth, allowing Steptococcus mutans to work it’s havoc upon your baby’s chompers. While the breast will not release milk unless actively sucked. Unless, maybe, I suppose if you’re like me and have an overactive let-down, and you also just letdown randomly, even while asleep.(Boy, was I glad when that came to an end!)
Meaning that the differences in the mechanics of the feeding style play a key role here too.
Rumour has it…
So where DID this little gremlin of a half-truth/myth pop up from? Well, according to the Australian Breastfeeding Association article, it has its origins in ONLY three- yes,thats only “3”- articles that were done in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And yes, thats a very long time ago.These authors presented their evidence in case reports of only nine babies in total.(two of whom also received bottles – I am unsure if thats breastmilk bottles or forumla, or juice.) These case reports did not include any experimentation or trials, but conclusions were based on this small number of case reports and on the dentists’ own inadequate understanding of breastfeeding.
Later, (and with far more evidence-based) research strongly opposes the notion that breastfeeding has anything to do with tooth decay. This evidence includes population studies which have shown no relationship between breastfeeding and tooth decay in large groups of young children.
For more information and better detail from the experts, why not go check out these sites, three of the bajillion articles and research I’ve been reading: (And for factors that could actually cause tooth decay in infants, I would recommend you specifically go check out no 2 on this list)
So I hope that I’ve helped shed an itty bitty bit of light on the matter for someone, anyone out there. Here’s to happy,healthy toofy baby grins!
Have you ever been given similar advise about breastfeeding at night or letting baby sleep with boob in the mouth? Who gave it? What did you think?Did you believe it? I’d love to hear from you!