When you ask a mother how long she breastfed her child, you are generally relying on her memory. But scientists have discovered a way to tell the length of breastfeeding and they found their scientific solution with the assistance of the tooth fairy.
Manish Arora studies tooth chemistry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He told NPR that, “you can almost visualize tooth development in terms of growth rings that you would see in a tree,” says Arora. How? According to NPR, “like tree rings, the layers of enamel and dentin that accumulate day after day mark the passage of time. And the compounds in the enamel can tell scientists a lot about the tooth owner’s early growth and development.”
But one marker found in the tooth fascinated Arora, he was interesting in discovering, via studying the tooth, a scientific answer to how long it was before a child was weened. He got his teeth in an interesting manner, he collected the teeth that children had placed under their pillows for the tooth fairy. The children, “do get a small reimbursement for every tooth they donate,” Arora says. Yup, he’s just like a tooth fairy.
The key to the marker is barium, a “cousin” of calcium. “During the period of breast-feeding, the barium levels in teeth were higher,” Arora says. “At weaning, the levels of barium in teeth started to drop.”
After they discovered they could get this information from a tooth, a colleague wanted some of their own questions answered. Tanya Smith, who studies human evolution at Harvard, lent Arora a tooth from a 100,000 year old Neanderthal. They found that the Neanderthal began the weening process at 7 months, the had a mixed food/breast milk diet, and then at 15 month, the barium marker disappeared. This led to the assumption that the Neanderthals breastfed until the baby was a little over a year old, right in line with the recommendation from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which says that as the CDC states, “breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months.”
Pretty amazing stuff. You’ve got to wonder what other questions our body can answer. Personally, we’ve kept all our child’s lost teeth so far (how could you not). I wonder if they will ever come in handy some day.
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