Baby teeth are important. If baby teeth are lost too early, the teeth that are left may move and not leave any room for adult teeth to come in. Also, if teeth decay is not prevented, it can be costly to treat, cause pain, and lead to life-threatening infections.
Teeth decay (called early childhood caries) is the most common chronic infectious disease of childhood.
Healthy dental habits should begin early because tooth decay can develop as soon as the first tooth comes in.
Causes of Teeth Decay in Babies
Teeth decay develops when a baby’s mouth is infected by acid-producing bacteria. Parents and caregivers can pass bacteria to babies through saliva. For example, bacteria is spread by sharing saliva on spoons or cups, testing foods before feeding them to babies, and cleaning off a pacifier in the parent’s or caregiver’s mouth.
Teeth decay also develops when the child’s teeth and gums are exposed to any liquid or food other than water for long periods or frequently throughout the day. Natural or added sugars in the liquid or food are changed to acid by bacteria in the mouth. This acid then dissolves the outer part of the teeth, causing them to decay.
The most common way this happens is when parents put their children to bed with a bottle of formula, milk, juice (even when mixed with water), soft drinks (soda, pop), sugar water, or sugared drinks. It can also occur when children are allowed to frequently drink anything other than water from a sippy cup or bottle during the day or night. Milk should be served only with meals and not offered throughout the day, at nap time or at bedtime. Although extended and frequent breastfeeding alone does not cause tooth decay, all breastfeeding mothers should be aware of and follow oral hygiene, fluoride, preventive dental care, and healthy diet recommendations.
Signs of Teeth Decay in Babies
Tooth decay might first appear as white spots at the gum line on the upper front teeth. These spots are hard to see at first—even for a child’s doctor or dentist—without proper equipment. A child with tooth decay needs to be examined and treated early to stop the decay from spreading and to prevent further damage.
How to Prevent Teeth Decay in Babies
Take the following steps to prevent teeth decay:
- Take good care of your own teeth even before your baby is born. It is important and OK to see a dentist for oral care while you are pregnant.
- Whether you choose to breastfeed or bottle-feed, it is important to take good care of your baby’s teeth.
- Birth to 12 months: Keep your baby’s mouth clean by gently wiping the gums with a clean baby washcloth. Once you see the first teeth, gently brush using a soft baby toothbrush.
- 12 to 36 months: Brush your child’s teeth 2 times per day for 2 minutes. Use a smear of fluoride toothpaste until your child’s third birthday. The best times to brush are after breakfast and before bed.
- Never put your child to bed with a bottle or food. This not only exposes your child’s teeth to sugars but can also put your child at risk for ear infections and choking.
- Do not use a bottle as a pacifier or let your child walk around with or drink from one for long periods. If your child wants to have the bottle or sippy cup in between meals, fill it with only water.
- Teach your child to use a regular cup as soon as possible, preferably by 12 to 15 months of age. Drinking from a cup is less likely to cause liquid to collect around the teeth. Also, a cup cannot be taken to bed.
- If your child must have a bottle or sippy cup for long periods, fill it with water only. During car rides, offer only water if your child is thirsty.
- Limit the amount of sweet foods your child eats, such as candies and cookies. Sugar is in foods like crackers and chips too. These foods are especially bad if your child snacks on them a lot. They should be eaten only at mealtime. Teach your child to use his tongue to clean food immediately off the teeth.
- Serve juice only during meals or not at all. The dentists do not recommend juice for babies younger than 6 months.