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Photo: courtesy Lena Ostroff
If you wish your child to have a glowing healthy smile, breastfeeding is number one on your priority list.
The well established health benefits of breastfeeding include immunity, digestive health, and emotional development. In addition, one of the biggest advocates for breastfeeding should be your dentist. Why? Breast milk couldn’t be any more perfect than it is for developing young mouths and teeth.
During the first months of a newborn’s life her body is growing at a faster rate than it will during the rest of her entire life. During this exciting time, hidden under her gums are tiny teeth that shape her future dental health.
Let’s look at how breastfeeding can influence the oral health of your baby.
How baby’s teeth grow
While milk teeth begin to erupt around six months of age, your baby’s mouth is busy growing even in the absence of teeth. Between the ages of 6 and 30 months, a child’s full set of baby teeth will erupt. Hidden underneath, her adult teeth are busily growing even though they won’t begin to erupt until the child is at least five or six years of age.
Teeth begin as a tiny, fetus-like bulb called the tooth germ that sits under the child’s gums. Inside the tooth germ, tiny cells work tirelessly converting a soft mineral-rich matrix into teeth. If we could zoom in, we would see a complex biological process that is a delicate balancing process of hormone activation, protein signaling, and mineral depositing. The cells inside the tooth germ rely on the body to supply enough minerals, calcium, and proteins to allow teeth to grow strong and white. The enamel, which is the outer coating of teeth, is one of the hardest substances in the human body. In order to create such a strong, resilient shell for our teeth, calcium and phosphate minerals are deposited in a process that takes up to three years
Teeth are delicate creatures
A child’s tooth that begins to form in the very early months of life will need to last throughout adult life. The tooth germ process is so specific that even if one tiny interruption occurs, it can cause imperfections that are permanent.
Tooth forming cells use many materials and processes to form: any disruptions may result in poor quality enamel being formed. The outcome can be darkened or a discolored appearance of teeth or, in more serious circumstances, deformities that can leave the tooth at a high risk of dental decay.
Some of the known factors that will cause deformities in tooth enamel formation are systemic fever, certain antibiotics, and autoimmune diseases like celiac disease.
Fuel for young mouths
Breastfeeding is the best way for you to ensure your child’s healthy tooth formation. Nature has designed us to provide our newborns with the materials they need for strong healthy smiles.
As teeth go through different stages of development, breast milk also changes its composition as the new mother goes through different stages of lactation. These subtle changes are guiding our baby’s mouth and providing all it needs to grow and develop normally.
Breast milk includes:
- Fat soluble vitamins. Vitamins A and D have a number of roles in the body and are two of the main contributors in the regulation of calcium.
- Fat. A combination of saturated and unsaturated fats including palmitic and oleic acids are crucial for the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins and the creation of enzymes.
- Growth factors. Human milk is full of growth factors that play a role in regulating the tooth germ development process.
- Bioactive components. The various elements that play a role in signaling and biological processes.
The best dental visit your baby could receive
While many of the processes that occur during tooth development are complex and not completely understood, we know the body is finely tuned to ensure that breastfeeding provides the balanced requirements to build healthy teeth.
To give your child the best chance of avoiding expensive future dental work, it’s recommended to breastfeed for at least the first six months.
Dr Steven Lin is a dentist, writer, and TEDx Speaker. He was trained at the University of Sydney, with a background in biomedical science, nutrition, and public health education. Currently he is working on his publication, The Dental Diet: an exploration of evolutionary diet, genetics, and nutritional medicine.
Catón, J. et al. Current knowledge of tooth development: patterning and mineralization of the murine dentition. Journal of Anatomy 2009; 214(4): 502-515.
Ballard, O., Morrow, AL. Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2013;60(1):49-74. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002.
Schrezenmeir, J. et al. Foreword. The British Journal of Nutrition 2000;84(S1):1.
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