Breastfeeding Your Toddler? Here’s Why Dental Care Is Essential

Photo: Shutterstock / The Bump
Photo: Shutterstock / The Bump

Led by Benjamin Chaffee, research fresh out of the University of California, San Francisco found that breastfeeding a child older than two years can lead to a greater risk of severe early tooth decay, which makes great dental care all the more important.

The study, which took place at the University of California at Berkeley, lasted more than a year and included 458 babies in low-income families in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. For the study, researchers checked in on babies when they were 6, 12 and 36 months old. And because the study lasted more than one year, most babies were eating various types of solids and liquids in addition to breast milk. Chaffee and his colleagues started collecting data on the number of breast milk bottles that baby drank the day before, as well as any other liquids, like juice.

Then, at 12 months, parents in the study were asked to report on whether or not they fed their babies any one of 29 specific foods (which included fruits, vegetables, meat, candy, chips, beans, chocolate milk, cookies, honey, sweet biscuits and soft drinks). They found that nearly half of the children (229 babies) had been fed a prepared infant formula drink by six months. At one year old, however, very few were still drinking formula. In comparison, 50 percent of babies breastfed between 6 and 25 months had experienced some tooth decay but the end of the study by two trained dentists who had examined the babies at each of the visits. The denists noted that for babies breastfed longer than two years and frequently, the number with tooth decay rose to 48 percent.

Published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology, Chaffee wants to make it clear that he’s not saying breastfeeding causes tooth decay. “The number one priority for the breastfeeding mother is to make sure that her child is getting optimal nutrition,” he  said, adding, “”Our study does not suggest that breastfeeding causes caries.”

Currently, the World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, with solids introduced slowly into their diet. Beyond that, WHO also recommends that babies continue to have breast milk up until age two — and beyond. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, only 16 percent of babies in the US are still exclusively breastfed after six months.  In their published report, the researchers admit that it’s possible for breast milk served along with excess refined sugar that’s found in many modern foods may be contributing to a greater showing of tooth decay, but to be certain, more research is needed. For now, the researchers suggest avoiding on-demand breastfeeding after tooth eruption.

So what should parents do? Take your child for his first dental visit when his first tooth appears. If that doesn’t work for you, the researchers warn that you should take them no later than his first birthday. Chaffee says, “Finding the right age to wean a baby off breast milk can be a decision made with the support of a pediatrician. But anything that removes carbohydrates and sugars from the oral cavity should help prevent decay.”

And to take it one step further, Chaffee even says that brushing baby’s teeth might help too. His comments seamlessly coincide with a new report from the American Dental Association says that parents shouldn’t wait until baby turns two to start brushing his teeth with fluoride toothpaste.

Will you start brushing baby’s teeth earlier?

Plus, more from The Bump:

How to Teach My Toddler to Brush His Teeth?

How Do I Clean Baby’s New Teeth?

What’s the Best Way to Brush My Toddler’s Teeth?