We don’t usually think of babies as being susceptible to getting cavities, but you may be surprised by how common it is. When a child develops cavities in the baby teeth before they have switched to solid foods, we call this baby bottle decay. How does it happen? When a child is allowed to drink milk or juice from a bottle or sippy cup for long periods of time (especially at night), this creates an acidic environment that encourages tooth decay.
Baby bottle decay is a common condition that is easily preventable with the right approach. Learn more about oral health and small children by visiting Knoxville children’s dentist Dr. Jack Haney. Call our office at 865-693-6886 to make an appointment for your child!
How Do Cavities Form?
Cavities form when bacteria create an acidic environment in the mouth. How do milk and juice encourage this? The natural sugars in these drinks feed bacteria, which then excrete acids that leach minerals from tooth enamel. The surface of the teeth can literally be dissolved by the constant presence of bacterial acids.
When a child is constantly sucking or sipping beverages with natural sugars, mouth bacteria are constantly feeding and excreting acids. Usually, our saliva does a very good job of rinsing away sugar residue and neutralizing acids, but the mouth needs a break from beverages in order to do this. Giving a bottle for at-will drinking through the night is especially dangerous, since saliva production is slowed during sleep.
Babies do not naturally have high levels of mouth bacteria, as adults do. It usually takes time for newborns to be exposed to the bacteria that will inhabit the mouth for life. However, we have recently learned that mothers can transfer bacteria to their babies by sharing spoons or drinking cups. Babies who develop early decay may be more at risk if they have been exposed to bacteria from shared contact with their parents. A great way to protect your child’s oral health is to make sure you don’t accidentally transfer bacteria from your own mouth by sharing spoons and other eating tools.
How to Prevent Early Cavities
Oral hygiene for children should start as soon as the first teeth appear. To clean a baby’s teeth and gums, use a clean wet baby washcloth to gently wipe plaque from the teeth, once a day. Gauze is also an excellent tool for cleaning baby teeth. As your child gets older, switch to a small toothbrush made for infants. You don’t need to use toothpaste yet, but if you do—do not use an adult toothpaste.
More importantly, you can prevent an acidic mouth environment by limiting the amount of time your child takes milk or juice from a bottle or sippy cup. If you give a bottle at bedtime, do not put your child to bed with a bottle of milk. Make sure he or she finishes the milk before falling asleep.
- If your child likes to suck for comfort, use a pacifier.
- Don’t share spoons/forks/cups with your infant.
- Do not give more than 4 ounces of juice per day, and dilute it to 50 percent with water.
- Give milk or juice only at mealtimes. Give water freely.
- Make sure your child finishes his/her bottle before sleeping.
- Give water in bottles or sippy cups if your child wants a drink to fall asleep to.
- Clean your child’s teeth every day, using age-appropriate oral hygiene tools.
An important note on oral hygiene tools: if you use a toothpaste when brushing your toddler’s teeth, take care to avoid fluoride until your child is old enough to spit (instead of swallow). Ingesting too much fluoride can be dangerous for two reasons. Fluoride can be toxic in high doses, and it can also affect the adult teeth growing in your child’s jaw. If a child ingests too much fluoride, it can create permanent stains on the adult teeth (fluorosis).
When Should My Child See a Dentist?
The ADA recommends that children have their first dental visit around the time of their third birthday. During this visit, children get a gentle exam and first dental cleaning. Children’s dentists take care to make first visits a positive experience, to help children learn that the dentist’s office is a place where good things happen.
You don’t have to wait until your child is three to see a dentist, however. If you notice any signs of possible decay in your child’s mouth, bring your child to a dentist right away—at any age. This may include white spots around the gums, or discolored spots on the teeth that cannot be brushed away. There are preventive treatments that can reverse early tooth demineralization and restorative treatments for cavities. Without treatment, decay will worsen and spread until your child is in pain. No one wants that to happen.