Can Breastfeeding Cause Cavities?

Smiling mother breastfeeding her baby in bed
By following a few easy tips, nursing moms can set their babies up for a lifetime of healthy smiles.

Even though baby teeth are temporary, they can affect a child’s smile for the rest of their life. Helping your child have a healthy mouth when they’re young will set them up for a lifetime of good oral health. Breastfeeding is one factor that can influence your baby’s smile. With a few precautions, you can keep your baby’s teeth (and your own teeth) in good shape while breastfeeding.

Can Breast Milk Give a Baby Cavities?

Cavities in infants and very young children is often called “baby bottle tooth decay.”  Baby bottle tooth decay happens when the sugars in milk, formula, juice or other sweet drinks are exposed to a child’s teeth and gums for long periods of time. When a baby is put to bed with a bottle, or a bottle is used to pacify a fussy baby, the bottle often sits in the baby’s mouth. The long-term contact between the baby’s teeth and the milk on the nipple of the bottle is what causes cavities. When breastfeeding, the milk rarely comes in contact with the baby’s teeth. That’s why breastmilk in a bottle can increase cavity risk but breastfeeding usually does not.

Many new moms question whether it is safe to “dream nurse” or breastfeed their child to sleep. There is not much research on the oral health implications of nursing your baby to sleep, so some dentists and pediatricians may recommend that you try not to breastfeed your child to sleep. Even though breastfeeding is less likely to cause cavities than bottle feeding, breast milk pooling around teeth while your child is sleeping can increase the risk of tooth decay.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby’s life and continuing breastfeeding as a complement to food until at least the baby’s first birthday. The World Health Organization also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months with extended breastfeeding to age 2 or later, noting significant health benefits to both the mother and child.

While some studies have indicated that babies breastfed longer than 2 years may have an increased risk of cavities, many researchers believe that breastmilk in conjunction with excess refined sugar in foods may be contributing to the higher levels of tooth decay in babies who are breastfed longer than 2 years.

Every baby and mom are different. Understanding the effects of breastfeeding in the short term and long term can help you decide what’s right for you and your newborn.

How to Avoid Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

If you bottle feed or transition to a sippy cup, there are some things you can do to prevent your child from getting baby bottle tooth decay:

  • Give water to your baby at nap time
  • Do not allow your baby to carry around a bottle of milk or sippy cup of juice
  • Avoid letting your baby fall asleep with a bottle
  • Wipe baby’s gums clean with a wet washcloth 
  • Start brushing your baby’s teeth as soon as one comes in
  • Floss your baby’s teeth as soon as two teeth touch
  • Take your child to the dentist by their first birthday

A few preventive measures can go a long way in ensuring your child has strong, healthy teeth as they grow up. Not only will healthy teeth allow them to chew food easier, it will also support speech development.

Other Factors to Consider When Breastfeeding

Moms who are breastfeeding lose a small bit of bone mass during lactation to provide calcium to their baby. Make sure your prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amount of calcium. The recommended dietary allowance of calcium for all women between the ages of 19 and 50 — whether they’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or non-pregnant — is 1,000 -1,300 mg/day.

The changes in the body that occur with pregnancy have been linked to an increased risk of tooth decay. Breastfeeding, however, does not have a substantial link to causing the mother to form cavities. Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby may cause a mom to shift focus and spend less time on her own oral hygiene. Dentists often notice that pregnant women and new moms take less care of their teeth than before they were pregnant. Dr. Ruchi Sahota, mother and American Dental Association spokesperson, states that, “Moms that are just not brushing as much as they used to, whether they’re brushing once a day or not brushing at all.” And that will lead to the formation of cavities. Ensure you’re staying on top of your oral and overall health after your child is born. 

Proper dental care for you and your baby will help you both avoid cavities, toothaches and gum disease in the future. Taking care of your teeth is a great way to create a lifetime of healthy smiles.

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