There are plenty of reasons why breastfeeding matters, starting with the basic fact that it’s naturally our first food. Just as we weren’t designed to eat the hyper-processed junk that gets passed off as food in your local grocery store, we weren’t designed to thrive on manufactured formula and pap through our first years of life on Earth.
Breastmilk nourishes a child with more than just basic nutrients. Breastfeeding lays the foundation for good health into the future. It delivers antibodies and other immune factors that help protect them against illness while their immune systems are still developing. (In fact, we can actually see its composition change as the baby’s needs change.) It helps populate the body with the good bacteria needed to keep the bad guys in check.
And it’s not just the baby’s health that benefits. As one recent study reminds, Mom wins, too, thanks to a lower risk of conditions such as breast cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.
Dentally, breastfeeding is also crucial for the child’s orofacial development. Without it, the arches tend to be narrower and the face, less fully developed. They’re more apt to have crooked teeth. (One 2015 study found that kids who were exclusively breastfed for six months were 72% less likely to have crooked teeth than those who were never breastfed.) In short,
Breastfed babies have a better chance of dental health than artificially-fed infants because of the effects of breastfeeding on the development of the oral cavity and airway. With fewer malocclusions, these children may have a reduced need for orthodontic intervention. In addition, children with the proper development of a well-rounded, “U-shaped” dental arch, which is found more commonly in breastfed children, may have fewer problems with snoring and sleep apnea in later life.
Yet for all this, there are still those who insist that breastfeeding causes tooth decay. Does it really?
Not through the first year of life, concludes a new meta-analysis in Acta Paediatrica. Evaluating data from dozens of papers, the authors actually found that “breastfeeding in infancy may protect against dental caries” [emphasis added].Children who were breastfed through the first year actually showed less tendency to develop decay.
But the researchers did note a higher risk of decay among kids who kept nursing after their first teeth had erupted. But can this be pinned on the breastfeeding? In a word, no.
This may be due to other factors which are linked with prolonged breastfeeding including nocturnal feeding during sleep, cariogenic foods/drinks in the diet or inadequate oral hygiene practices.
But not the breastmilk. As ever, it remains nature’s perfect food.
Image by Valentina Yachichurova, via Flickr