How Baby-Led Weaning Can Help Promote Good Oral and Physical Health in Your Child
June 02, 2013
By Dr. Mercola
A topic rarely discussed, yet phenomenally important, relates to the food children and babies are fed, and they way in which they are weaned. This can have a profound impact on your child’s future dental and physical health.
Dr. Kevin Boyd is an attending dentist at Lurie Children’s (formerly Children’s Memorial) Hospital, the leading pediatric institution in Chicago area. Incidentally, this is where I did some training as a resident. It’s a phenomenal training hospital associated with Northwestern University.
He’s also trained in nutritional biochemistry, and serves on a board with Joy Moeller who is the leader in the United States for oral myofunctional therapy.
Dr. Boyd’s interest in diet, health and dental health began during a stint in an experimental Peace Corps volunteer program in Honduras, where kids suffered terrible dental decay.
“[S]ugar cane is the abundant crop there. The kids start eating it at birth, and their front teeth rot out,” he says.
He eventually obtained a master’s degree in nutritional biochemistry and did his research in the area of unhealthy eating as it affects bodyweight and susceptibility to diabetes and tooth decay. After that, he entered dental school.
Weight Gain and Cavities Have the Identical Root Cause
As Dr. Boyd explains, the foods that cause weight gain are the same foods that cause tooth decay—primarily simple carbohydrates. This realization led him to investigate ultimate causes versus approximate causes, meaning the evolutionary significance of diet and tooth decay. He’s now pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology and evolutionary medicine, looking at historical patterns of Westernization of the food supply and how it impacted internal and oral disease.
“To suggest that this epidemic of tooth decay is because of poor brushing is not sound from an evolutionary perspective,” he says. “It’s not evidence-based. It’s important to brush. But plaque – the stuff that forms on the teeth after you eat – from food residue is not intrinsically acid-producing. It doesn’t produce gum disease. It doesn’t produce tooth decay unless it becomes activated.”
What activates it are simple carbohydrates – starches and sugars – that are not conjugated to its native fiber. All sugars in nature, such as the fructose in fruits, are conjugated to fiber, which actually provides mechanical cleansing of teeth.
“I think brushing is important, but not activating plaque with simple sugars is more important,” he says.
Introducing alkalinity in the form of baking soda can also help decrease the acid level in your mouth at the tooth and gum surface, which can help prevent plaque formation. I can personally attest to the effectiveness of brushing and flossing with baking soda.
This is something I learned from Dr. Tim Rainey, who is a pioneer in biological dentistry. Despite eating healthy for well over a decade, I was still having problems with persistent plaque formation.
I noticed a significant change after introducing fermented vegetables (which provide me with tens of trillions of beneficial bacteria or probiotics each day) but what really made the difference was adding baking soda irrigation to my daily regimen. I follow this with coconut oil pulling as it puts a protective coat back on the teeth that the baking soda irrigation tends to remove.
The Vital Importance of Baby-Led Weaning
The Ph.D. dissertation Dr. Boyd hopes to pursue would compare modern Westernized infant and early childhood feeding regimens with what he calls “ancestral-type infant and early childhood feeding regimens.” Fossil records show that up until the last 300 years or so, babies were more or less exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Interestingly enough, this can actually be determined from fossilized teeth.
“You can tell when a baby stops breastfeeding in a 30,000-year-old tooth. We can analyze it,” Dr. Boyd explains. “There’s something called the natal line. That shows when the baby just came into the world and stopped feeding off of the placenta. And then we can tell when they are starting to wean and completely weaned just by looking at teeth and bones.”
The reason you’ve likely never heard of this from your doctor or dentist is because it’s not taught in dental or medical schools. Anthropologists, however, have known this for decades.
“Dental schools need to have evolutionary biologists on their teaching staff. They just do,” he says. “My whole mission – I’m dedicating the rest of my career to this – is to integrate this into dental education in dentistry. I call it evolutionary oral medicine or Darwinian dentistry.”
An ancestral-type infant and early childhood feeding regimen is defined by six months of exclusive breastfeeding, after which the child undergoes a period of weaning. This weaning period includes breastfeeding on demand, combined with the gradual introduction of regular foods, via a process now referred to as “baby-led weaning.” This type of feeding schedule is what the human genome was adapted to.
Modern-day baby-led weaning has been popularized by one of Dr. Boyd’s anthropology colleagues, Gill Rapley in England, and includes premasticating regular whole foods in lieu of serving processed baby foods. Dr. Boyd explains:
“It’s called kiss feeding. Modern-day hunter-gatherers (there’s not many of them left, but some aboriginal cultures still do these practices) will pre-chew the food like a bird does and spit it into the child’s mouth. It sounds gross, but it’s actually not. It’s quite wonderful.
...Usually, by seven-, eight-, and certainly nine-months-old – even though a child didn’t have that many, if any, teeth – they were chewing with their gums everything that anyone in the tribe was chewing. Certainly by a year old, there was no difference in what a child ate. That would continue into the third year of life. Children are typically breastfed on demand while weaning on to firm, regular foods into the third year of life and sometimes beyond. That’s consistent throughout the human history.”
This natural process actually trains the child’s tongue to position itself upward and forward, and to lateralize toward the sides of the jaws. When your tongue pushes upwards and forward, it expands the palate in the middle, which allows your palate and jaw to settle into the anatomically correct positions.
As a result of this ancestral-type of feeding, which allows the oral cavity to develop naturally and properly, our ancestors were not plagued with crooked teeth and poorly aligned jaws. The anthropological evidence shows that such problems really didn’t arise until about 350 years ago. At present, an estimated 92 percent or more of all Westernized people have some degree of malocclusion, such as crowding of the teeth, narrowing of the jaws, or both. (This is where Joy Moeller’s oral myofunctional training comes in—her protocol helps correct the oral defects and misalignments created by modern feeding.)
This has ramifications for breathing and sleeping, which in turn can lead to what we’ve now dubbed “attention deficit disorder.”
“We now know that snoring children and children that don’t get a good-quality –good REM sleep – are far more susceptible to having behavioral and brain dysfunction like ADD,” Dr. Boyd says. “Giving a stimulant to a child for ADD is not the right thing to do for a child who needs better sleep. Sometimes just changing the architecture of their jaws early in life (I’m not saying that’s the only thing), getting them myofunctional training, and getting them to chew harder, fresher, more nutritious foods can preclude all kinds of problems that we’re throwing drugs at right now.”
How Breastfeeding Promotes Proper Oral Development
When a child is fed the way he was genetically designed to be fed, it stimulates the structure of the mouth and facial bones to develop in an optimal way. This begins with exclusive breastfeeding, ideally for the first six months. However, if you cannot breastfeed, for whatever reason, there are alternatives that can mimic the stimulus created by breastfeeding, which will promote proper formation of your child’s oral cavity.
According to Dr. Boyd, baby bottles are NOT the way to go if you cannot breastfeed. Instead, feeding your child from a cup is much better. Not a lidded sippy cup, however, but an unlidded cup with a small cutout.
“Panera Bread’s little kid cups can be easily modified. I tell parents to go to Panera Bread and ask for their little cups. You can just cut out a little mouth piece on it. You just cut a little loop in it, a little arc.”
Dr. Boyd Supplying an Image/Illustration?
This may surprise many, but baby bottles actually do not mimic the natural suction a baby exerts on the breast. Baby bottles were created under the mistaken belief that babies deform the mother’s nipple, elongating it all the way back to the soft palate. This is why baby bottle nipples are designed the way they are. It was also assumed that babies massage the milk via a peristaltic wave motion, pressing the nipple up against the roof of the mouth. Alas, all of these assumptions have been solidly disproven by Dr. Donna Geddes.
“You can go on a website called Bumpology, and hit Ultrasound Breastfeeding. Donna put an ultrasound probe underneath the mother’s breast while she was breastfeeding and totally disproved the assumption that babies elongated nipple back to the gag reflex and massage it against the mid-palatal suture. That isn’t what happens,” Dr. Boyd says.
Instead, what really happens is that a vacuum is created when the middle of the baby’s tongue comes down, which helps express milk from the breast. Next, the forward part of the baby’s tongue pushes the mother’s nipple inside, right behind the two front teeth. This motion explains why ancestral feeding widens the jaw, and pushes both the upper and lower jaws forward. It also pushes the cheekbones in the mid-face forward.
“It’s like a piston that pushes out on the mid-face. There’s an incisive suture that goes all the way up to your nose that pushes the whole mid-face forward,” he explains.
How to Do Baby-Led Weaning
First of all, babies should not be given any solid food, including pureed baby food, until they are able to sit up on their own. This typically occurs around six months, which coincides with when our ancestors stopped exclusive breastfeeding. Dr. Boyd also advises parents to wait to introduce solid foods until your baby can grasp them. This is because the ability to firmly grasp something in their hand coincides with the development of the gag reflex, which is nature’s way of making sure your baby will not choke on the food. (Naturally, you still must observe and supervise your baby while she’s eating on her own.)
That said, even before your baby can sit up on her own, you should let her lick, smell, see and touch real food in order to get used to it.
“Because they’re born with a visceral suck-swallow, they think Gerber baby food puree is thick milk, and they’re going to try to suck it. And that’s where the deviant tongue-swallowing pattern starts,” Dr. Boyd says. “They’re not being allowed to transition from a visceral, hardwired suck-swallow to a more mature, lateralizing chew-swallow. That’s what baby-led weaning along with breastfeeding do. It teaches the tongue how to transition from an infantile, immature suck-swallow to a mature chew-swallow.
Then, by six- to seven-months-old, in that first month, you can chop fresh foods up. Let your baby pick them up and make a mess on their tray. Let them hold the food to their mouth. Let them pick up things that are big, you know, carrots. They can gnaw on it.”
For those who want to incorporate “kiss feeding,” you can either premasticate, meaning pre-chew, the food before giving it to your baby, or you can buy what’s called a “mesh feeder”—a net bag into which you place chopped up fresh foods, which then turns into a puree as your baby chews on the mesh bag. This way, your baby gets the benefit of the challenge to his jaws. This also provides the proper tongue training. Once pureed, you can empty the contents out onto a plate and allow your baby to feed himself with his hands.
“Gradually, making the foods a little more course, a little less chopped, until really, certainly by 10, 11, to 12 months for sure, a child should be eating everything that the adults are eating,” Dr. Boyd says.
Five Recommendations to Optimize Your Baby’s Oral Health
The top five recommendations issued by Dr. Boyd to promote oral health in your child are:
- Find a pediatric dentist by age one, and get checkups at least twice to three times per year.
- Establish healthy eating habits, based on whole foods and no or low sugar. If your child does not eat sugar, his teeth will not decay, even if he does not brush religiously. During infancy, make sure to only feed your child breast milk during the night. If they get any other type of commercial carbohydrate (most infant formulas are actually loaded with sugar), breast milk can become toxic to the teeth.
“If it’s just breast milk, lactoferrin kills the bacteria that cause tooth decay,” Dr. Boyd explains. “As soon as you can get your children to where they don’t have to breastfeed through the night, they’re less risky of getting decay. But as long as it’s just breast milk, don’t worry about it.”
- Brush teeth three times a day. Ideally, you’ll want to start massaging your child’s gums before his teeth erupt, using either your finger, a Q-tip, or a square of gauze.
When your child starts to show teeth around six or seven months, you can start brushing them with a baby toothbrush. The night time brushing is the most important one. The morning and midday brushing, you can let your child do on her own. “If they can hold the toothbrush, they’re going to do enough,” Dr. Boyd says.
Children typically will not need to floss until the age of about three or four years old, when the spaces between the teeth begin to tighten.
- Drink pure water as the primary beverage, and
- If drinking juice, eat a whole piece of fruit along with it (so if drinking four ounces of orange juice, eat eight slices of orange). This way, your child gets the fiber of the fruit, which slows down absorption, and helps to mechanically clean his teeth. Then rinse the mouth with water afterward. Personally, I would advise against drinking any juice. Just provide your child with fresh fruit.
Work with Genetic Adaptation Rather Than Against It...
It’s quite clear that following a feeding program that includes breastfeeding (or using cup feeding in lieu of bottle feeding) and baby-led weaning can have a tremendously beneficial impact on your child’s future development; from allowing natural tongue, jaw and facial development to occur, to promoting better dental health, to avoiding common problems like snoring, mouth-breathing and sleeping problems that can contribute to behavioral and learning disabilities.
All it takes are minor modifications, such as ditching the baby bottle for a modified lidless feeding cup, and using “kiss feeding” or a mesh feeder instead of processed baby food.
To learn more about Dr. Boyd’s work, check out his website at dentistry4children.net. For more information about baby-led weaning, Dr. Boyd recommends the book Baby-Led Weaning, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. You can also learn more on babyledweaning.com.1