How Breastfeeding Can Set the Stage for Good Oral (& Overall) Health

breastfeedingYou’re probably already aware of breastfeeding’s nutritional, immunological, and psychological benefits. What you might not know is that it affects a child’s orofacial development and dental health, as well.

As noted expert Dr. Brian Palmer wrote in an important paper for the Journal of Human Lactation, breastfeeding contributes to “improved shaping of the hard palate resulting in proper alignment of teeth and fewer problems with malocclusions.”

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.

Comparatively, notes a more recent paper, improper bottle feeding “forces the tongue and cheek muscles to develop a compensating and atypical function, in order to obtain the milk. As a result, there can be an adaptation change of the dental and bone structures, leading to malocclusions.”

The developmental benefits of breastfeeding may also underlie the results of a new study in the Journal of Dentistry for Children.

The research involved 84 children, ages 4 to 12, who were categorized as either low or high risk for developing sleep disordered breathing (SDB) – a term that encompasses both hypopnea (episodes of not breathing enough) and apnea (episodes of not breathing at all). Their caregivers were asked about both feeding and non-nutritive sucking (NNS) behaviors (thumb-sucking, pacifier use, and the like).

NNS was found to have no effect on sleep disordered breathing. But “breastfeeding reduced the risk substantially.”

Of course, this is a small, observational study. It can’t show cause and effect. But based on what we know about how breastfeeding affects the development of the mouth, face, and airway, and the evidence of a relationship between orofacial physiology and SDB, the findings make sense.

But why, you might be wondering, would breastfeeding make such a difference on how the mouth and face take shape. Myofunctional therapist Carol Vander Stoep explains:

Breastfed babies have a far better chance at beauty and health because these infants learn to work their lips, cheeks, and tongue differently. Facial development occurs early, when facial bones are plastic. Genes, skeletal influences, and airway development determine facial shape.

It takes 1.4 grams of pressure to move teeth or change bone structure. The tongue exerts up to 500 grams of pressure, the cheeks up to 300 grams. For maximum attractiveness and a lifetime of healthy function, these forces must balance each other. Proper swallowing patterns learned by breastfeeding balance these forces so teeth erupt evenly around the tongue to form a beautiful and functional arch. A wide arch promotes a wide, open airway.

And as Dr. E’s colleague Dr. Felix Liao shows in his recent book Six-foot Tiger, Three-foot Cage, the airway plays a major role in a person’s overall health and well-being.

Yes, we do have ways of addressing these issues later on in life, through appliance therapy, orthodontics/dental orthopedics, and related treatments. But preventing them from even becoming issues at all is the ideal.

Breastfeeding lays an important foundation for making that ideal reality.

Image by Jeff Snodgrass, via Flickr