Breastfeeding Baby Could Nix Need for Braces

New research shows the act of breastfeeding, in whatever capacity, may help prevent the need for braces later. Think of it as an investment in Baby's future teeth.

Breastfeeding Baby Could Prevent Braces Later Flashon Studio/Shutterstock

Whether to breast- or bottle-feed is a very personal decision, but new research has found another benefit to choosing to breastfeed if possible: less dental issues later in life. The study, published this week in the journal Pediatrics, found that children who had been exclusively breastfed for six months had fewer instances of open bite (a gap between your upper and lower teeth when you close your jaw) and moderate/severe malocclusion (misalignment of the teeth) at five years old than children who were never breastfed or breastfed only part of the time.

Is some breastfeeding better than none?

The findings are particularly striking because they highlight the advantages to nursing without using bottles on babies' teeth. Those children who had been exclusively nursed up to six months of age had 44% less instances of overbite and 72% lower prevalence of malocclusion (misalignment) than those who had never breastfed. Study author Karen Peres, a professor at the University of Adelaide's School of Dentistry in Australia, tells, "Our study shows that exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age reduces the risk of moderate or severe malocclusion on the primary dentition."

Of course, this is a nearly impossible goal for American working women, who usually get only three months off on maternity leave. But moms who use bottles some of the time, such as after going back to work, won't necessarily have to spend money on braces later, either—the study found that children who were mostly breastfed, but who also used bottles, had lower instances of teeth problems as well. "Some protective effects of predominant breastfeeding were identified," Peres says. In other words, some breastfeeding leads to some benefit, even if not as much as from nursing exclusively. "The benefits of breastfeeding are dose-dependent, and the effects on the oral cavity are no exception to this rule," Dr. Joanna Pierro, DO, a pediatrician at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, tells "So the longer a baby breastfeeds, the more benefits she receives."

How breastfeeding helps form baby's mouth

Pierro says it's the actual act of an infant moving her jaw on the breast that helps form the mouth properly, affecting adult teeth and reducing the risk for braces later on. "Unlike bottle-feeding, a breastfed baby moves her tongue and jaw in ways that mold the palate and oral cavity so even before a baby breaks her first tooth, breastfeeding helps lay the proper foundation for tooth alignment," Pierro says. "This study shows how this decreases the child's chances of needing braces in the future." Peres agrees, noting that although this study focused on baby teeth, problems with primary teeth often lead to problems with permanent teeth that require braces. "I think exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age could be a good strategy to avoid the need for braces in adult teeth," she says.

To use pacifiers or not?

The study also found that pacifier use reduced the benefit of nursing for oral development among children who were mostly breastfed. Pacifiers had no effect on the teeth of exclusively breastfed babies, but those children are less likely to use pacifiers very often in the first place. "Exclusive breastfeeding is inversely associated with the frequency, intensity and duration of pacifier use, which in turn may lead to severe malocclusion," Peres says.

Even in light of pacifiers' negative impacts on babies' teeth, parents should think twice before they ditch them because of their association with lower instances of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. "However, this study points out that they may affect normal development of the oral cavity," Pierro says. "Breastfeeding itself has also been proven to decrease the risk of SIDS, and with its many other benefits it should take precedent over pacifier use." In light of the AAP's recommendation, though, each mom has to weigh the pros and cons for herself. If you choose to use a pacifier, Pierro recommends waiting until your baby is four weeks old, when breastfeeding is generally pretty well-established.

Although this may seem to be just one more thing to guilt moms into exclusive nursing, it shouldn't be. Moms have much to consider when deciding whether to breastfeed and whether to use a pacifier, and this new information should be just one of the contributing factors to those choices.