Does Extended Breastfeeding Cause Cavities? Science Explains

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I don't think anyone likes going to the dentist. It's not high up on the list of fun ways to spend an afternoon. Therefore, the best way to avoid added trips to the dentist is prevention. That's tricky when it comes to a wiggling baby who has no interest in oral hygiene. How can parents prevent cavities in our babies who are just cutting teeth, and what is most likely to cause them? For instance, is breastfeeding better than bottles on teeth or does extended breastfeeding cause cavities? Breast milk is known for being sweet, and the worry of tooth decay in toddlers can be consuming.

There is a lot of discussion surrounding the phenomenon known as "bottle rot," which is when babies are allowed to continually drink their milk from bottles past the age of infancy, and the prolonged exposure causes decay in the teeth, as per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Recently, more studies have been highlighting a possible similar risk for those children who breastfeed into their second year for extended periods of time. One of these studies, published in Pediatrics, examined the effects of prolonged breastfeeding over the course of 12, 24, and 60 months postpartum. The study found no cause for concern until after the baby is 2 years old. 24 months seems to be the tipping point between healthy teeth and teeth more likely to be affected by dental issues.

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This research is not without its detractors. The website for Dr. Sears, for instance, posted a rebuttal to the findings. The article noted that the study was too narrow in its scope and failed to examine the differences between night nursers or extended breastfeeding, bottle feeding, and children who are weaned from both. The article also claimed that most babies will get at least one or two cavities, and that to simply blame it on the action of breastfeeding may be hasty. The website also noted how genetics play a role in the amount of cavities, and that the study didn't examine that aspect of the children in the pool of subjects.

It's also important to look at what the world considers to be extended breastfeeding when examining if extended breastfeeding causes cavities. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that babies be breastfed for a period of two years. In most western culture, breastfeeding past the first year is considered prolonged. However, that's not the case worldwide. WHO has specific guidelines and nutritional charts that outline the needs and benefits of breastfeeding for those two years. The study that linked prolonged breastfeeding with increased potential for cavities did not determine the nutrition of the children apart from the breast milk given, which does not adequately examine if those children were suffering from nutritional deficiencies that could contribute to ill health in the body and the teeth.

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As the website Kelly Mom pointed out, "Although breastfed children can get cavities, breast milk alone does not appear to be the cause. Foods other than breast milk tend to be the main problem." That means if your kid is noshing on fistfuls of raisins and then breastfeeding before heading to sleep at night, a cavity could happen. It's important to monitor your child's sugar intake and either clean their gums after feeding when possible, as per the suggestion of the New York State Department of Health, or brush their teeth if they have any.

Seriously — don't neglect the gums. The New York State Department Of Health suggested lifting the lips of your baby just to make sure nothing is hiding between the cheek and the teeth or gums, and to clean the area well. All you need is a soft toothbrush and clean water.

There are so many factors that work together to determine whether or not your child will get cavities, but the literature is conflicted as to whether or not extended breastfeeding is the cause. In the end, you'll make the call and do the best you can.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.