If you have ever nursed a child past the age of 12 months, you have probably heard the following from a dentist or pediatrician: “Breast milk causes tooth decay, so don’t let your child nurse at night or go to bed with a bottle.”
It’s better termed “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay” or “Nursing Caries,” although it is not limited to baby bottles, as it extends to breastfeeding babies and toddlers. The reasoning behind it: In short, during the day, the cleansing action of saliva clears any food residue from teeth and buffers the acid produced by decay-causing bacteria (strep mutans). At night, however, the saliva supply is low. Milk sugars cling on to teeth and mix with the cariogenic bacteria already present in the mouth, which, in turn, produce acid. Without the constant renewal of saliva to “intervene,” the acid attacks the teeth and eventually causes decay.
I apologize in advance to those good-hearted and well-intended dentists and pediatricians, and I realize I may even get a few negative responses to this one (but that’s what you get when you say something controversial and dispute mainstream ideology, right?), but I’m here to destroy the myth that nursing causes tooth decay in children.
We have been to our fair share of dentists in the course of our firstborn’s first 2 years of life to get second, third and even fourth opinions and ensure that we were not doing any unnecessary treatments. For those inquiring minds, he had a horrendous bout with acid reflux as an infant that left part of the edge of his enamel on two of his incisors worn to the dentin. Although there were no cavities yet, we wanted to take preventative measures to guarantee that our son did not have further issues down the road.
Time and again, we were lectured about nursing him, especially at night. At the time, I kept thinking, why would God make this perfect food that also causes tooth decay in babies? It couldn’t be right, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. So we did some of our own research (no surprise there, as I always research everything), and made a yet another appointment with a very knowledgeable dentist in Southern California who was on the cutting edge of the newest information and research. And guess what we found out?
Breast milk does not cause tooth decay.
Although breast milk is sweet and contains lactose, it also has a protectant, lactoferrin, that attacks decay-causing bacteria. The reason why breast milk is so often mistakenly linked to tooth decay is because it is very sticky. It sticks onto those baby teeth like a gooey coating, which in and of itself is not bad for teeth. It’s when you add table foods to the mix that it becomes, well, a rather sticky situation. Breast milk makes other foods stick to the child’s teeth and that, my friends, is the culprit of tooth decay.
There were even a couple of articles in dentistry publications stating that breast milk doesn’t cause tooth decay. And there are no studies that can link breast milk to early childhood caries. (In fact, there is a Finnish study that concludes the exact opposite.) So why do our dentists and doctors still warn us against nursing our children past a year?
So what can you do to prevent caries (cavities)? Basically what that dentist told us was to brush the breast milk from his teeth before giving him table food. And then make sure that before we nursed him again, we rid his teeth of all table food. Yes, it seems like a tedious job and much harder to do than to wean the child. But we didn’t stop nursing him.
I’ll admit that we didn’t brush after every meal or after every nursing session, but we did do a very good job of brushing twice a day and using a re-calcification paste on our son’s enamel-worn teeth. He drank water directly from an adult cup to rinse his mouth from foods after he ate, and drank juice only from a straw to “bypass” his teeth. Though this might not work for everyone, especially for those children that are genetically predisposed to having cavities, somehow our son managed to stay cavity-free.
Due to all of this research, I am more apt to believe that SoCal dentist and our own findings rather than all the other dentists and pediatricians who are only repeating the (rather erroneous) information that they were given to quote to the masses. (I guess it’s easier to just blame the breast milk than try to explain to thousands of nursing moms that they need to brush after every nursing session?) Just the other day I had to bite my tongue, as yet another dentist told me to stop nursing my 13 month old child. I just smiled and nodded, knowing that she was intending to give good advice but was probably misleading so many moms on this matter.
Breast milk really is the perfect food after all. So, go ahead and nurse those tots for as long as you want to. But unless you want to hear the lecture, you might want to keep that a secret. Then make sure to brush, brush, brush those tiny pearly whites before they come into contact with table food, use good dental hygiene and visit the dentist regularly. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research.