Somewhere between 25-50% of children require braces or other orthodontic treatment during childhood.
But did you know that you may be able to prevent the need for orthodontics by breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is a habit most parents know is good for baby’s development — it supports a healthy immune system, may protect against obesity, among other benefits.
Research in the past few decades also suggests that breastfeeding can promote proper jaw development and orthodontic growth.
In other words, breastfeeding can help your child’s teeth grow in straight, without crowding.
However, by 6 months old, only 37%-58% of babies are still breastfed, and many are not exclusively breastfed.
Let’s take a look at the evidence for breastfeeding to prevent the need for braces, what to do if breastfeeding becomes difficult, and other early interventions to support proper jaw growth.
How does breastfeeding impact jaw development?
Breastfeeding supports good jaw development because of the unique way it encourages the tongue to press against the soft palate of the mouth.
Babies use a tongue thrust motion during breastfeeding, pressing the tongue up into the soft palate and down against the front teeth.
During infancy, a baby’s soft palate is soft and “wax-like.” Tongue thrust during breastfeeding, swallowing, and talking shapes and expands the soft palate, encouraging proper growth of the upper jaw.
Bottle feeding does not cause the same action, which is why children who are exclusively bottle-fed have a much higher risk of orthodontic issues.
Breastfeeding’s impact on jaw growth is also good for the development of a baby’s airway. This may help prevent problems with sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea.
Finally, breastfeeding is the ideal method for training proper feeding and swallowing habits. Not only does it support the natural growth of the muscles of the face and throat, but it also may protect against picky eating habits during the toddler years.
Breastfeeding and Orthodontic Growth
What does research tell us about the relationship between breastfeeding and orthodontic growth?
Data from a study involving almost 9,700 children in 1981 concluded that longer breastfeeding times correlated with a lower risk of malocclusion (misalignment of teeth).
A review of 48 studies, published in 2015, found that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of misaligned teeth. Exclusive breastfeeding and longer breastfeeding times were associated with the best results.
A 2016 study followed 416 children and found that, compared to children breastfed more than 6 months, children breastfed for fewer than 6 months:
- Were almost twice as likely to have crowded baby teeth
- Developed thumb sucking or pacifier habits more often (which can negatively impact jaw growth)
- Had a higher chance of “convex facial profile,” a facial profile in which the jaw recedes because the jaw doesn’t grow to its full potential (common in underbite)
In 2018, a study of 630 children suggested that the longer a child was breastfed, the better his or her chance for:
- Properly spaced baby teeth
- Flush terminal and median planes, which refers to the correct way upper and lower teeth meet for ideal chewing
- “Ideal” incisor overbite, which means that the front teeth are the appropriate distance in front of the lower teeth when the mouth is closed
Another systematic review in 2018, including 31 total studies, claims that breastfeeding is a “protective factor” against two orthodontic issues:
- Posterior crossbite: Lower teeth overlap upper teeth, usually in one section of the mouth
- Class II malocclusion: Misaligned teeth that will likely require braces
Overall, the results are clear: Breastfeeding a child supports good jaw development and will decrease the risk for braces later in a child’s life.
Breastfeeding and Sleep-Disordered Breathing
It’s important to recognize the connection between sleep-disordered breathing, orthodontic growth, and other common childhood problems. These issues are very closely interrelated.
A 2013 report discussed the connection between breastfeeding, misaligned teeth, ADHD, and obesity throughout the first several years of life.
They outline a process that, for many children, looks like this:
- Not breastfeeding leads to poor jaw growth, malocclusion, and improper airway growth.
- These factors together increase the risk of childhood sleep apnea.
- Childhood sleep apnea can present as (or be a root cause of) ADHD, which is associated with misaligned teeth.
- Many children then develop obesity, a shared risk factor of both ADHD and not breastfeeding exclusively during infancy.
- Children with ADHD, malocclusions, and obesity are statistically more likely to suffer traumatic dental injuries.
As you can see, these factors are a cluster of problems, rather than a simple cause-and-effect.
In healthy weight children with sleep apnea, the primary cause of sleep apnea is considered to be poor facial and jaw growth.
Breastfeeding and Cavities
Crowded teeth, metal braces, sleep-disordered breathing, and obesity are all associated with higher rates of tooth decay (cavities).
Shorter breastfeeding times are related to higher rates of obesity, rhinitis (the common cold), and asthma. This is important, as poor diet and mouth breathing increase the risk of cavities.
How long should you breastfeed?
For proper jaw growth, you should breastfeed exclusively for at least 6 months and up to 2 years, if possible.
Exclusive breastfeeding through 6 months is the most effective predictor of good orthodontic growth. Most of the studies I discussed above found that the longer a baby is breastfed, the more likely they are to have straight, correctly spaced teeth.
Common Breastfeeding Problems & Solutions
Not all mothers are able to breastfeed their babies, regardless of the benefits it offers. In fact, my oldest daughter encountered a severe case of mastitis that ended breastfeeding for good.
If you struggle with breastfeeding difficulties, certain resources can help:
- If your baby struggles to latch: Check for a lip or tongue tie, which can greatly impact breastfeeding. Tongue ties should be released as early as they are identified to improve orthodontic growth and other associated problems. Depending on when a tongue tie is identified and released, you may need to work with a myofunctional therapist to retrain the muscles of the mouth.
- If you struggle with breastfeeding in general: Talk to a board-certified lactation consultant or find local support through La Leche League. Often, seeking help from someone who can spend time with you, face to face, helps to spot and solve common issues.
- If you are unable to breastfeed for any reason: Talk to your doctor about purchasing donated breast milk, which requires a prescription. Low-income families may also be able to receive free donated milk. See the breakdown from What to Expect for a list of breast milk banks and common questions about donated breast milk.
Ultimately, having a community of moms is one of the best ways to find encouragement, particularly if breastfeeding is a challenge. Check out local groups on Facebook or online forums for new mothers.
Other Ways to Prevent Braces
Orthodontic issues happen due to a combination of factors, usually during gestation and early infant development.
In addition to breastfeeding, you may be able to prevent braces by:
- Discouraging pacifier use and thumb sucking: In some cases, these can negate the effects of breastfeeding.
- Watching vitamin K2 intake: Make sure your baby gets plenty of vitamin K2 through breastfeeding and cod liver oil.
- Early orthodontic assessment: Having an orthodontic assessment between the ages of 2-5 may allow your orthodontist to correct early growth issues with palatal expanders. This can encourage good jaw development and make enough space for teeth to come in. Look for an orthodontist who specializes in “orthotropics”.
Takeaway: Breastfeeding & Jaw Development
Breastfeeding is a vital way to support proper jaw development and reduce the risk of orthodontic issues, like crowded or misaligned teeth. This may prevent your child from ever needing braces.
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