As a pediatric dentist and a nursing mother, this is always in the front of my mind. I must not be alone, because I get these types of questions daily at work:
-Could my breastmilk be bad for my child’s teeth?
-Do I have to night wean my child now that he or she has teeth?
-Should I stop nursing my child all together once they start to get teeth?
The simple answer to each of these questions is NO. That is good news for us as nursing mothers (and of course, for our babies too!).
However, just like many things in life, this simple answer requires a little bit of explanation.
Breastmilk in and of itself is not cavity causing. This is wonderful news. So, theoretically, if you were continuing to nurse a child that has teeth, no cavities should form on the teeth while you continue to breastfeed. However, there is another piece to the puzzle that can make this a bit more complicated.
Usually, at around six months of age – often around the time of the eruption of the first primary teeth – solid foods are first introduced to a baby’s diet. Many of these early foods are carbohydrate based (for example: cereal, puffs, potatoes, and even bread). After consuming these and other solid foods, a carbohydrate-laden plaque forms on the teeth. Once this plaque is present on the teeth, breastmilk has the potential to cause cavities.
Ok, that all sounds very complex…so what should we do as a breastfeeding mother? Stop nursing as soon as the first tooth cuts through? NO.
The many benefits of breastfeeding do not simply vanish as our little one starts to get teeth, or even as they celebrate their first birthday. I encourage all mothers to continue to breastfeed their child for as long as they are comfortable. I also encourage them to take a few simple steps necessary to prevent cavities. Together with a little dental knowledge, we can be smart about the habits we establish early on to set up our children for a lifelong relationship with good oral health.
Here are some tips for taking care of your child’s teeth while breastfeeding:
1. It is important to brush your child’s teeth well twice a day: after breakfast and especially before bedtime. This becomes particularly important if you co-sleep and nurse frequently throughout the night. If the plaque is not present on the teeth, the breastmilk will not cause cavities.
2. One way to ensure you are getting all of the teeth, and keeping your little one safe, is to lay them down on a changing table or a soft blanket when you brush. This will let you see into their mouth a little easier and avoid bumping into hard corners in slippery bathrooms. Once they’re lying down, you can use one hand to lift the upper or lower the bottom lip. The facials (or cheek sides) of the front teeth are especially susceptible to plaque buildup as they’re erupting. By using two hands, it’s easier to clear the plaque along the gum line.
3. Limit the child’s snacking to one or two short periods throughout the day and discourage a grazing mentality when snacking – especially on foods that are carbohydrate based. Avoid juice altogether unless medically recommended for constipation, etc.
4. Choose snacks wisely. Fresh fruit, cut up vegetables, and dairy snacks (like yogurt and cheese sticks) are the best options for your child’s teeth.
5. Visit a pediatric dentist within 6 months of the eruption of the first tooth, or by the age of 1 at the latest. This helps to identify any areas that might need a little more attention, address any problems while they’re first starting out, and it also helps to get your child comfortable at the dentist at an early age.
Breastmilk is amazing and it truly is nature’s perfect food for your child. By making smart decisions and setting up healthy oral habits, you can breastfeed your child and continue giving them all of the wonderful benefits of breastmilk even after their teeth come in.
Katie M. Lapps Wert, DMD is a board certified pediatric dentist and a fellow in the International College of Dentists. She practices in Lansdale, PA at North Penn Pediatric Dental Associates, LLC. She designed and completed research on breastfeeding and oral health while training at CHOP. Her research article “Breastfeeding, Co-Sleeping, and Dental Health Advice” was published in the American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing in the spring of 2015.