You might have heard of baby bottle tooth decay, which is dental decay in babies and toddlers, often caused by sugary liquid pooling in the mouth when the baby falls asleep with a bottle. Since the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization agree that toddlers can be nursed through the second year of life and beyond, more moms are nursing their children as they approach their second or third birthdays. Here are some facts on whether breastfeeding can cause tooth decay in young children.

First, the Good News

There are a few characteristics of breastfeeding that can minimize your child's risk of developing dental cavities. First, breast milk itself has antibacterial properties. It does not make a good food for the bacteria that causes cavities. This has a somewhat protective effect on the teeth.

Next, when a child is nursing, breast milk does not tend to pool in the mouth. Milk does not drip out of the breast toward the end of a feeding; the child has to be actively suckling and swallowing. The chances that milk is sitting in the baby's mouth for a prolonged period of time is fairly low.

Now the Bad News

One characteristic of breastfeeding that can actually make dental decay more likely is that many moms who co-sleep with their babies or toddlers allow them to nurse throughout the night. In fact, this is one reason why breastfeeding is so convenient; neither parent needs to fully rouse to feed the baby during the wee hours. The problem with this is that the baby might end up nursing several times, which exposes his or her teeth to a food substance during a time when the teeth would normally be bathed in only saliva. This can increase the risk of developing decay.

It's also important to remember that breast milk and baby formula are not the only causes of dental decay; bacteria transmitted from the parents' mouths, other foods the child is eating, and a lack of good dental hygiene are also factors.

If you are breastfeeding your toddler, it's important to clean his or her teeth regularly. This might entail wiping one or two teeth with a baby washcloth or brushing with an infant brush and fluoride-free toothpaste once several teeth are in. Do this at least twice daily. Use dental floss to clean the areas between the teeth once your baby has two teeth adjacent to one another. Also, avoid nursing through the night; talk to your child's pediatrician if you need help nightweaning. Finally, see a dentist once your baby begins getting teeth. All babies should see a dentist by their first birthdays, so if you are coming up on (or have passed) that milestone, call your dentist to make an appointment.

For professional dental care, contact a dentist such as Brit E. Bowers, DDS.