Ask the Dentist: Mechanics of breastfeeding aid healthy formation of jaws and teeth

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care, Belfast, highlights how breastfeeding acts as nature's way of moulding an uncluttered mouth

During breastfeeding the back of the tongue must first be drawn firmly against roof of the mouth, working as nature’s expander, widening the upper jaw

IT'S not only the perfect balance of nutrients in breast milk that helps babies develop, the suckling action also has an amazingly positive effect on the growth of your baby's face.

In one large study of 9,698 children between three and 17 years of age, scientists found that children who were bottle fed were 1.84 times more likely to have crowded teeth than children who were breastfed.

Crooked, crowded teeth are perceived as less attractive; however, the knock-on physical problems are the real issues. Crowded teeth are really due to not enough space in small, under-developed jaws. These narrowed jaws mean a narrowed airway so the body is getting less air than ideal. Moreover, teeth that that are poorly positioned are more likely to break, result in jaw joints that wear at a faster rate and can lead to facial muscle pain.

The largest growth spurts of the face occur within the first four years of life and facial growth is 90 per cent completed by 12 years of age. Crucially we can influence our child's facial development early on and one of the ways to do this is by breastfeeding.

It turns out that the act of breastfeeding requires a very sophisticated coordination of muscles and movement from the baby's jaw and tongue – much different from what is required from bottle drinking.

During breastfeeding the back of the tongue must first be drawn firmly against roof of the mouth, which allows the tongue to mould the upper jaw, and work as nature's expander, widening the upper jaw so it houses the tongue perfectly.

After milk has been released, the tip of the tongue pushes the breast against the front of the palate. This stimulates the forward development of the front part of the upper jaw and middle of the face. As the lower jaw moves back and forth, it stimulates forward growth of the lower jaw too. As the jaws and face grow forward, so does the airway.

Bottle feeding is a more passive activity, where the baby does not have to exert much energy in order to cause the milk to flow out. In the early stages of mouth development, the palate is almost as malleable as softened wax. Thus, when any object – a bottle teat, finger or a dummy – is pressed against the soft bones of the palate, these bones can be moulded into a narrow, unnatural shape.

This eventually leads to the poor alignment of teeth, and the 'V-shaped' palate found in many people with poorly aligned teeth.

Breastfeeding is nature's way of giving a fantastic muscle workout to the baby. This is another example of how perfectly the human body is designed.

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