In general, breastfeeding can have a positive impact on a baby's oral health. In fact, studies found children who breastfed exclusively were less likely to have bite issues (e.g. overbites, crossbites) than those who didn't. However, while breastfed babies don't develop cavities as often as those who are bottle fed, breast milk can still be just as damaging to baby teeth as baby formula. Here's what you need to know to protect your child's teeth and gums while they're nursing.
Sugar is the Source of the Problem
When it comes to the development of cavities in baby teeth, the source of the problem isn't necessarily what is used to drink the milk but rather what it contains. Both breast milk and baby formula contain sugar, which acts as a food source for the bacteria that's constantly present in the mouth. If your baby's teeth and gums aren't cleaned after feeding or milk is allowed to pool in the mouth for long periods of time, the sugar in the milk will cause an increase in bacterial activity that can lead to cavities and other oral health problems.
This isn't to say that breastfeeding is just as bad for baby teeth as bottle feeding, though. As noted previously, children who breastfeed are less likely to develop cavities than those who bottle feed, but this is due to the difference in eating habits and the environment associated with each type of feeding.
With breastfeeding, milk generally only enters the mouth when the baby is actively nursing and is usually quickly swallowed. Additionally, breastfed babies are less likely to overconsume milk (and thus take in higher-than-normal amounts of sugar), and the nursing parent is present and can ensure no milk is left behind in the mouth.
On the other hand, it's not uncommon for bottle-fed children to be left unattended while feeding once they reach a certain age. This can lead to pooling issue, overconsumption of milk (and sugar as a result), and increased periods of time between oral cleaning. This is why bottle-fed children tend to develop cavities at a higher rate than breastfed ones.
Poor Breastfeeding Habits Can Be a Problem Too
However, poor nursing habits can also contribute to an increased risk of getting cavities. In particular, allowing the child to nurse on demand and overnight — which typically leads to a higher frequency of breastfeeding — can result in some of the same issues seen with bottle feeding. Thus, to keep your child's teeth healthy, only breastfeed on a set schedule as recommended by your doctor and be certain to clean your child's teeth and mouth after every meal.
For more information about preventing cavities or other oral health issues your child may encounter, contact a pediatric dentist.