There are few things in the world of nutrition research that have such conclusive results as breastfeeding. The evidence is strong: Breastfeeding is linked with healthier babies and healthier mothers. Most of the research has focused on the actual benefits of the milk. Breast milk contains a unique profile of nutrients, and it actually changes composition as the baby feeds or gets older. Of course, breast milk also contains live organisms, such as antibodies and enzymes, which offer unique benefits that formula cannot duplicate.
Less attention has been paid to the actual mechanics of breastfeeding and its benefits. That is, the way the infant uses his or her jaw, tongue and facial muscles to breastfeed, and the difference this might make in the baby’s development.
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 for drinking from a bottle. Babies have to work to breastfeed, which is sometimes witnessed in the form of “muscle fatigue” when a newborn’s jaw starts quivering while breastfeeding. 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. The muscles used and the motion of the jaw and tongue are different in breastfeeding when compared to bottle feeding, leading to a difference in actual jaw development.
Some health experts have long suspected that breastfeeding is critical to the proper development of a baby’s jaw, dental health and airway. The late Dr. Brian Palmer was a vocal advocate for breastfeeding and spent his career linking breastfeeding to better dental health, and even to a reduction in problems with airway restriction. Evidence has shown that breastfed babies are less at risk for sudden infant death syndrome, for example, and Palmer believed that this might be due in part to the developing hard palate and airway.
Research has demonstrated this difference in jaw development based on the type of “sucking” done in infancy, and has also linked the type of sucking done in infancy to better or worse dental health later in life. In one study, for example, researchers examined more than 1,000 preschool children and found that those who had been breastfed as a baby were less likely to have problems with the alignment of their teeth or an overcrowded mouth.
Another study released in January found that 8-year-old children with a family history of asthma were less likely to have habitual snoring or incidences of sleep apnea (where a person stops breathing during sleep) if they had been breastfed. The study controlled for weight, so being overweight was not a factor in the findings. The results might be explained by the development of the jaw; sleep apnea is more common when someone has a high palate and narrow dental arch — which is more likely to develop with bottle-feeding and other forms of artificial nipples, like pacifiers.
Since breast milk is the clear winner for infant nutrition, all major health organizations recommend it as the preferred food source for at least the first six months of life, and up to a year or longer as desired. However, it may be equally important to feed the baby at the breast as often as possible, rather than putting expressed milk in a bottle.