The human body is amazingly complicated, and our understanding of the complexities of the body’s systems keeps evolving. We’ve long known that our body has an intricate system of defenses against invading pathogens–bacteria, viruses, and the like. The body’s system of defenses sometimes needs a little extra help to keep disease at bay, so we’ve developed a wide array of antibiotics to do that. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the point that some bacteria are resistant to types of antibiotics. As we research newer, more effective types of antibiotics, scientists have found help back in the human body’s own natural defense mechanisms–human milk.
We’ve long known that there are antibodies in breast milk. Mothers pass a number of protections to their newborns. We are slowly developing a better picture of exactly how breastfeeding benefits the normal development of a child, and part of that was knowing that there were proteins in milk that were part of the immune system and help protect a growing child from a number of childhood illnesses. A study out of Vanderbilt University, for the first time, looks at a specific group of carbohydrates from human milk and evaluates their antibiotic potential.
This study shows enormous potential and avenues for further study. A type of sugar, human milk oligosaccharides, when isolated from breast milk was shown to kill Strep B bacteria. In another exciting discovery, they also interfere with the ability of that bacteria to form a biofilm. Since biofilms are a way that infectious bacteria protect themselves from antibiotics, chemicals that can break down biofilms are valuable tools in the fight against infection.
Of course, this study raises some questions for the oral environment. We know that biofilms play a major role in cavity formation and that the caries disease process is bacterially driven. So if milk has antibiotic and biofilm busting effects, does that mean that there’s no need to worry about baby’s teeth as long as baby is feeding on breast milk? It’s not quite that simple.
Babies’ first teeth generally arrive (or erupt, in technical terms) right around 6 months. That happens to coincide with the age recommended by most pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics to start solid foods. Breast milk is not the only actor in the baby’s oral environment, and the overall effect of baby’s diet is important to consider.
Careful studies have shown that, regardless of the contents, leaving baby with a bottle to drink over long periods time contributes to tooth decay. We know that sugars, regardless of the type, add to the acidic environment in the mouth that follows eating. Acid conditions will strip minerals from the tooth enamel and leave it vulnerable to future decay.
Taking a moment to wipe baby’s teeth and gums with a soft cloth after feeding still is an important step to protect those newly arrived pearly whites and to build a foundation for long term healthy oral care habits.