When I was breastfeeding my toddler, I heard all kinds of claims about how I was hurting my son's teeth. And to be honest, it freaked me out. As I dug into the truth of the matter, only myths were uncovered. Here are 4 dental health claims I heard when breastfeeding my toddler, busted:
1. Breastfeeding directly causes tooth decay.
By far the biggest criticism mothers hear is that breastfeeding into toddlerhood causes tooth decay. Even dental professionals will sometimes use the term: "baby bottle mouth," in regards to breastfeeding, which is categorically untrue. Baby bottle mouth refers to a rash of tooth decay in toddlers who take a bottle of cow's milk or juice to bed.
However, there is no scientific evidence that shows a link between breastfeeding and cavities. Actually, quite the opposite, research shows that cavities are rare in breastfed children. Breast milk itself doesn't cause tooth decay, though contributing factors can.
To reduce the risk of your breastfed child developing the rare cavity, it's important to practice good dental hygiene, feed a healthy balance of complementary foods, and also to avoid sharing saliva. Transferring saliva, such as from sharing cups or giving kisses on the lips, also transfers a cavity-causing bacteria present in most adults' mouths to their children - although research also shows that among breast milk's components, lactoferrin kills the cavity-causing bacteria.
2. Breastfeeding indirectly causes tooth decay.
A slightly different argument in the cavity category is that breastfeeding, especially at night, encourages unhealthy eating, which then leads to tooth decay. The idea is that nighttime breastfeeding promotes eating at night, so that the child becomes accustomed to eating at night and therefore isn't brushing his teeth frequently enough. Or, another claim is that breast milk - tasting sweeter than cow's milk - promotes the eating of sweets, so that a child develops a taste for cavity-causing foods.
While I didn't find any research specific to nighttime breastfeeding creating bad night-eating habits, there is evidence that toddlers need those night-nursings. Breast milk actually contains hormones that induces sleep! Plus, breastfeeding's benefits of fighting illness and helping the brain grow continue to be important in toddlers, and each of these happens as much at night as during the day.
Research also shows that breastfed children tend to be less picky eaters, and to enjoy a greater variety of foods. Because the taste of breast milk changes with the foods that moms eat, breastfed children can acquire a taste for all food groups. And babies of mothers who eat more vegetables actually pass along that desire for vegetables to their kids.
Related: Study: Breastfeeding Veggie Eaters May Turn Babies Into Veggie Lovers
3. Breastfeeding past 1 year negatively affects palate development.
I actually heard this from a public school music teacher, who claimed that toddlers actually need to thumb-suck in order to develop a healthy arch to their palate. Actually the opposite is true. Orofacial myologists, experts in oral-facial development, promote breastfeeding to at least 1 year so children develop the healthiest orofacial myology. Extended thumb-sucking, pacifier use, and bottle-feeding is actually what's associated with unhealthy palate development.
Related: What is Healthy Orofacial Myology and Why Is It Important For Baby?
4. Breastfeeding past 1 year rearranges the teeth.
Similar to the palate argument, some critics claim that breastfeeding pushes toddlers' teeth into less-than-ideal arrangements. But because breast tissue is soft, flexible, and actually forms to the shape of the child's mouth, this claim just doesn't make sense. It's an inflexible thumb, pacifier, and bottle teeth that pushes resiliently against the the teeth that can rearrange them overtime.
But let's say you're breastfeeding your toddler with crooked teeth, and she has never used a pacifier or bottle, or has ever sucked her thumb? It's important to note that genetics and nutrition, including nutritional deficiencies over generations passed through genetics, can affect how much orthodontics, even some breastfed children, will need.