Thursday's Tip: Breastfeeding and oral development

Babies who are exclusively breastfeeding have a different pattern of sucking than that of babies who are exclusively bottle fed according to a 2010 study. We know that the mechanics of sucking require a complex coordination of sucking, swallowing and breathing. The rhythm of a feeding is influenced by the age of the baby, hunger, baby’s mouth position on the breast/or shape of the bottle nipple, milk flow, and baby’s alertness or fatigue. The study called the sucking and pausing pattern of the breastfeeding babies the normal baseline and concluded that the bottle fed babies exhibited fewer sucks and the same number but longer duration pauses during the feeding sessions.

So, if the sucking pattern of a baby at the breast is the norm against which we measure other kinds of sucking what is it doing for baby’s jaw, mouth, and tooth and language development?

Breastfeeding babies’ faces, heads, eyes and bodies develop more symmetrically because switching the position of the baby when feeding with both breasts stimulates and exercises both sides of the body equally.

When baby is latched efficiently the breast is drawn deeply in the baby’s mouth. This deep latch supports and maintains the normal wide and flatter shape of the palate (the roof of the mouth). Artificial nipples, whether bottles or soothers, tend to push the palate into a higher, narrower V shape. The shape of palate inside the mouth affects the external shape of the face and jaw as well as the shape of the dental arch which in turn affects tooth spacing of both the baby and adult teeth. All of these factors together can affect speech production.

Dr. Brian Palmer stated “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.”

Some studies are as interesting for what they don’t prove as are others which can draw strong conclusions. Most of the studies on speech development have focused on the shaping of the mouth and the exercise of the jaw and throat muscles inherent in breastfeeding to explain the positive differences found breastfed babies. An interesting study done in 2007 questioned whether factors in breastmilk itself could explain some of the differences. The study looked specifically at polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These naturally occurring elements of breastmilk have been studied as they appear to have significant effect on brain and cognitive development. Because of their apparent importance some artificial baby milks have been enriched with PUFAs. This study looked at six month old babies who were either breastfed or fed PUFA-enriched artificial baby milk and measured their brain wave reactions to speech sounds. Only the breastfed babies reacted to all speech sounds and both sides of their brains showed stimulation. These differences in brainwave activity could signal a long term advantage in language acquisition and brain development. The study showed that the presence of PUFAs in the baby’s diet doesn’t explain the brain and speech development advantage for breastfed babies.

Often the mothers of babies who have disordered sucking and swallowing have been encouraged to switch to bottles. With all of the known advantages of human milk and feeding at the breast it may be more advantageous for the baby to first try a team approach with the assistance of a Lactation Consultant and a Pediatric Speech Pathologist. It may seem odd to consider talking to a Speech Pathologist about a newborn however many of them have specific training in the evaluation of sucking and swallowing. Their skill set can marry well with a Lactation Consultant’s knowledge of breastfeeding. To read more details click here.

More information about breastmilk and oral health can be found in Breastfeeding Today’s article “Is Breast milk nature’s toothpaste?”

If you have questions or concerns about any aspect of breastfeeding please contact a La Leche League Canada Leader or attend a meeting. You can find your local support at LLLC.ca

3 happy siblings in bed

To encourage, promote and provide breastfeeding, chest feeding and human milk feeding support and educational opportunities as an important contribution to the health of children, families and society