Can a Pregnant Woman’s Oral Health Affect her Unborn Baby?

doctor talks with pregnant woman

Good oral health is an important part of our general health. But researchers have found that an expectant mother’s oral health also has the potential to affect her unborn infant’s health. Bacteria from the mother’s mouth can get into the mother’s blood, from where it reaches the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby, and the baby can then swallow the bacteria.

Studies have shown that these oral bacteria can increase the risk of a premature birth or a low-birth-weight baby, start contractions prematurely, or cause the baby to get an infection — either as a newborn, or while the infant is still inside the uterus.

Researchers from Queen Mary University in London tested the gastric aspirates (stomach contents, including swallowed amniotic fluid) in 57 newborn babies. Forty-six different species of bacteria were found in the infants’ stomachs. The most prevalent bacteria were thought to have come from each mother’s vagina; but two of the species were suspected to have come from the mother’s mouth, since these are not normally found elsewhere in the body. The bacteria, Granulicatella elegans and Streptococcus sinensis, are species that can enter the bloodstream and have been previously linked to infections in areas far from the mouth, including infective endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner tissues of the heart. An infection could occur in either the mother or her unborn baby.

In another study, a researcher from the Dept. of Periodontics at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine compared post-mortem bacterial content in a baby who had been delivered full-term, but who was still-born. The baby had died from a bacterial infection and inflammation. When tested, the baby’s infected lungs and the stomach were found to contain the species Fusobacterium nucleatum, which the mother was found to have in her mouth. The mother had experienced excessive gum bleeding during her pregnancy, a symptom of pregnancy-associated gingivitis.

During pregnancy, a woman’s hormones fluctuate, causing her body to respond differently to bacteria, and increasing her chances of developing oral diseases such as gingivitis, which is an inflammation of the gums and the mildest form of gum disease, or periodontitis, a more advanced gum disease in which plaque grows below the gum line. In periodontitis, the tissues and bone that support the teeth break down and are destroyed.

Between 50 and 70 percent of all pregnant women will get gingivitis at some point during their pregnancy. Pregnancy-associated gingivitis will usually occur between the second and eighth month; its symptoms can range from redder gums that bleed a little when brushing, to swollen gums that bleed a lot.

If you are looking to become pregnant, make sure your oral health is good by visiting your dentist for a checkup. If you’re pregnant and begin experiencing bleeding gums routinely, visit your dentist for an evaluation and recommendations.

To prevent oral disease, dentists recommend brushing twice daily and flossing daily. There are different types of toothpastes on the market, from stronger ones that have baking soda and bleaching agents added, to milder ones that may be used by people with sensitive teeth. Tom’s of Maine sells mild toothpastes with all-natural ingredients. A simple paste made with baking soda and water is also an effective way to clean and brighten your teeth that will not damage the enamel, the delicate outermost layer of the teeth.

If hard or medium tooth brushes cause bleeding, try using a soft brush. If you get accustomed to brushing and flossing twice daily, minor bleeding will go away on its own once your gums get healthy from regular oral care. And remember to replace your toothbrush as soon as the bristles start to flatten (about once every two months).

Many people brush regularly, but do not floss. Bear in mind that brushing isn’t enough; it’s only about half the story. You have to clean between the teeth, too, which can only be achieved by flossing.

Proper Flossing Technique:

Cut a long piece of floss (about 2 ft.), then wrap one end around your right index finger a couple of times (if you are right-handed; or your left index finger, if you are left-handed). Wrap some of the floss around your left index finger, leaving about 4 in. of clean floss between index fingers. Gently guide floss, using your thumbs, between each tooth. Once floss is in the small space at the bottom of each tooth, gently but firmly clean one side of gum line, then the other side. Bring up floss out of teeth and coil used floss around your right finger (if you are right-handed, or around your left finger, if you are left-handed), freeing a little more clean floss from your left hand. Repeat procedure, until teeth, molars and both sides of each gum line have been cleaned.

If you have difficulty using unwaxed floss, which can shred, try using lightly waxed floss. It’s best not to use waxed floss, as it does not pick up as much debris as the unwaxed kind.

By Jamell Andrews