Perspective on Dental Caries
Lafayette IN USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 4, July-August 2003, p. 138
Of my nine living children, four had dental caries in their baby teeth. All of my children were breastfed for two-and-a-half to five years except our oldest, who was breastfed for only three months. She was born before I found La Leche League.
According to birth order it was my fifth (a second-born twin), sixth, eighth, and 10th children who had caries in their first set of teeth. After their teeth erupted, I noticed that some of them had lighter spots on them. These spots became caries later on. With the fifth and sixth, we started dental treatment at ages three and a half and five years, respectively. Some of their dental work "held," but some fell out as the soft enamel continued to crumble away around the fillings. I also noted that the teeth that had cavities filled became grayish-colored compared to their non-filled teeth. The fillings in my sixth child's upper front teeth fell out and the dentist replaced them, after which ensued a month-long infection at the site with swollen lip and much discomfort and pain for him. Then those fillings fell out and we did not have them re-filled. With each child, the dentist informed me that the cavities were due to extended breastfeeding, night nursings, poor nutrition, and not brushing their teeth. I would have believed him, too, if it had not been my good fortune to be involved with LLL. I was following the wise LLL suggestion to eat foods in their most natural state as often as possible, including whole grains and fresh fruits. We avoided processed foods and sugar. The only time candy was in our house was at Easter, Halloween and Christmas. I knew poor nutrition was not the cause.
All but my first child nursed at night and nursed well into the preschool years. Only four of the eight extended breastfeeders had cavities. I knew that breastfeeding had not caused my children's dental caries.
My first experience with primary tooth caries gave me further proof that none of these factors had played a part. After the dentist examined my child's teeth at our initial visit, he informed me in no uncertain terms that I obviously had allowed her to eat too much "junk food," sweets, and processed foods, that I had not brushed her teeth since eruption, and that I had breastfed her to sleep and not rinsed her mouth out after every nursing! He didn't know I was still nursing her. I was afraid to let him know that then. That, I felt, would have been a final condemnation of me in his eyes.
After being taken quite aback by this verbal attack on me and my mothering, I rallied in a few moments and gently pulled out her twin sister, who had been hiding behind my legs. I replied, "If all that you have just said is true, why didn't her twin have any cavities after being nursed in the same fashion and eating the same food and not having her teeth brushed either? I certainly don't have time to prepare a diet of 'junk food' for one child and another menu of wholesome food for the other six children!" What kind of mother would I be to feed one child inferior food and another healthy food!
That at least gave the dentist pause. Then I put forth my thoughts and ideas as to why this had happened. From the limited research I had done at that time, as well as from a conversation with LLL Advisory Board member and pediatrician Robert Mendelsohn, I believed something had occurred in utero during the time that the first teeth were developing, preventing them from forming a strong and healthy enamel. Possibly it had been a viral infection or a deficiency in the nutrient(s) responsible for developing strong enamel. Or in the case of my twins where I was growing two sets of teeth at once in utero, I may have had enough nutrients for one baby but not quite enough for two. This is the reason I was given at their birth for one twin being smaller than the other. She had a smaller placenta. Though the dentist did reflect on these theories, I received the impression that he still felt his causes were more valid and our case was just a "fluke."
By the time we had the last two children with primary tooth caries, my husband and I decided not to do anything about any of their cavities unless they caused pain. Then we only would have the offending tooth pulled instead of having them filled. This turned out to be much less painful and less stressful than numerous dental visits with the corresponding shots and fillings that fall out anyway. When we decided on this route, we were informed that our children's second teeth would be negatively affected, with damaged enamel, even more cavities than the first set, and poor alignment.
Now that those children are older (between the ages of 12 and 30), I am happy to say that the predictions of cavity ridden adult teeth did not come to pass. They all have strong teeth with either no or very few cavities.
Six of our nine children needed braces because they have a very narrow and high dental arch (hard palate) as well as small mouths. There was not enough actual gum to contain all of their second set of teeth. This type of arch they inherited from me. The last and current dentist we have been going to who has overseen all our braces never failed to comment admiringly on our eighth child's strong and very healthy teeth when he applied and maintained her braces. I gently informed him how badly her first teeth had been afflicted with caries and that we had done nothing about repairing them except having a painful one pulled. He still comments on her strong and nearly cavity-free teeth when she goes in for a checkup.
Why did my children have such healthy and strong second teeth? I believe it is because of breastfeeding. Though I couldn't control what happened during the development of their first set of teeth in the womb, I could give them the most superior nutrition available after their births and for as long as they wanted afterward, which was breastfeeding. The second set of teeth had the best nourishment to develop into the strongest teeth possible. This apparently held true for my children. Since we have lived in a rural area for over 29 years and drink water from our own well, I cannot give fluoride any credit. Nor did we choose to let our children get any fluoride treatments from our dentist.
I hope that sharing my experience will give mothers confidence in the good of breastfeeding and help them realize that some children get cavities and some don't, regardless of whether or not they are breastfed.
Editor's note: This story describes a mother's personal experience with dental caries. She gives some of her theories about their development, especially with regard to how her personal experiences have contradicted some scientific theories currently promoted. LLLI is not endorsing, nor discounting, her theories but simply sharing one mother's experience with the issue of dental caries and some hypotheses she has about their development. At this point, there has not been scientific research to test her theories. To read more about breastfeeding and dental health, go to www.lalecheleague.org/NB/NBdental.html.