The more frequently a mother breastfed her child
beyond the age of 24 months during the day, the greater the child's
risk of severe early tooth decay, researchers found.
"The No. 1 priority for the breastfeeding mother is to make sure
that her child is getting optimal nutrition," lead author Benjamin
Chaffee of the University of California, San Francisco told Reuters
Chaffee completed the study as a doctoral student at the University
of California at Berkeley.
He and his team looked at a possible link between longer-term
breastfeeding and the risk of tooth decay and cavities in a survey
of 458 babies in low-income families in the city of Porto Alegre,
Because the study lasted more than one year, most babies were eating
various kinds of solid food and liquids in addition to breast milk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies are fed
breast milk exclusively for the first six months of their lives,
with solid foods added to the diet at that point. However, the WHO
also recommends continued breastfeeding up to age two and beyond,
the authors note.
For the study, the researchers checked in on babies when they were
about 6, 12 and 38 months old. At six months, the study team
gathered data on the number of breast milk bottles the baby drank
the day before and any other liquids, like juice.
At the 12-month mark, parents reported whether they fed their babies
any of 29 specific foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, organ
meat, candy chips, chocolate milk, cookies, honey, soft drinks or
Two trained dentists examined all of the babies at each of the
Nearly half of the children had consumed a prepared infant formula
drink by age 6 months, the researchers write in the Annals of
Epidemiology, but very few still drank formula by age 1.
The researchers found that about 40 percent of children breastfed
between ages 6 and 24 months had some tooth decay by the end of the
study. For babies breastfed for longer than two years and
frequently, that number rose to 48 percent.
"Our study does not suggest that breastfeeding causes caries,"
It is possible that breast milk in conjunction with excess refined
sugar in modern foods may be contributing to the greater tooth decay
seen in babies breastfed the longest and most often, the authors
speculate in their report.
More research is needed to determine what's going on, but the
findings are in keeping with professional dental guidelines that
suggest avoiding on-demand breastfeeding after tooth eruption, they
"There are two aspects of breastfeeding — the actual human milk,
which has some, but very little, ability to promote tooth decay,"
said William Bowen, professor emeritus in the Center for Oral
Biology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
"The second is the physical aspect of breastfeeding,
or even bottle-feeding, and that's where the problem arrives," he
Bowen was not involved in the new study.
[to top of second column]
When a baby sucks on a
mother's breast or from a bottle, the baby's teeth are sealed off
from saliva in the mouth. This physical barrier prevents the saliva
from breaking down bacteria, and increases the chances of tooth
decay, Bowen said.
Even though participants in the study came from poor backgrounds,
"bad habits can form at any socioeconomic level," Bowen told Reuters
About 16 percent of babies in the U.S. were still exclusively
breastfed at age 6 months last year, according to the National
Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
The good news, Bowen said, is that it's very easy to clean an
A simple wipe in the mouth with a water-dampened cloth or Q-tip can
effectively remove food before the baby's first teeth, he said,
adding: "It's important to get the excess food out of the mouth."
One not-so-good habit is allowing infants to stay on a mother's
nipple throughout the night, Bowen said. This usually means very
little saliva circulates in the baby's mouth, which can increase the
risk of decay.
The primary caregiver of the baby should also maintain good dental
health because the bacteria that cause tooth decay in a baby usually
come from the primary caregiver, Bowen explained.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that parents
take their child to its first dental visit when the first tooth
appears, or no later than its first birthday.
"Finding the right age to wean a baby off breast milk can be a
decision made with the support of a pediatrician," Chaffee said,
adding that dental health is one consideration that could play a
Brushing teeth might help, Chaffee said, The study researchers
collected data on tooth brushing habits, but did not investigate a
specific link between cleaning teeth after the last feeding and
"But anything that removes carbohydrates and sugars from the oral
cavity should help prevent too decay," Chaffee said.
Epidemiology, online Feb. 19, 2014.
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.