What is tooth decay?
Tooth decay occurs when bacteria eat away at the enamel on your teeth. It can occur in babies and adults. Today, tooth decay is a leading disease in kids in the United States. Babies who come from low-income families may have a higher risk of tooth decay. This is due to a lack of access to dental care and health insurance.
Most forms of tooth decay in babies are known as early childhood caries (ECC). The main cause of this is a bacterial infection. The disease may be mild or severe. Signs of mild tooth decay are white spots on your baby’s teeth. A sign of severe tooth decay are brown or black spots on your baby’s teeth. Other signs of severe tooth decay are swollen and bleeding gums, bad breath, and fever or mood changes. Contact your child’s doctor right away if your baby has these symptoms.
Another form of tooth decay in babies is called baby bottle tooth decay. This occurs when a liquid (other than water) pools and sits in your baby’s mouth for a long period of time. It is more common in babies who go to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, or juice.
Why is preventing tooth decay important?
Your baby’s teeth are important to their overall health. They help your baby eat and speak. They play a part in your baby’s jaw growth and oral care. Strong, healthy baby teeth lead to better adult teeth down the road.
A baby who has tooth decay can have many problems. Examples include an infection, cavities, and tooth or gum abscesses. These can cause deformities in teeth or gums, as well as chronic pain. Your baby may need to have teeth pulled early due to tooth decay. This can cause issues with their adult teeth. Their adult teeth may be more crowded or crooked than normal. When this happens, your child often needs orthodontia, such as braces, when they are older.
Path to improved health
A baby is at risk of tooth decay as soon as they get their first tooth. In general, baby teeth start to appear between 4 and 7 months old, but each baby is different. The first teeth to come in are usually the 2 bottom front teeth.
There are many ways to help prevent tooth decay in your baby.
- Keep your baby’s mouth clean. From birth, you should wipe your baby’s teeth and gums with a wet baby washcloth or piece of gauze. Do this at least twice a day or after each feeding. Once your baby starts to get teeth, you can switch to a soft baby toothbrush. Use water and a tiny amount of kid-friendly toothpaste. You also should start flossing between your child’s teeth.
- Do not leave a bottle in your baby’s crib. It is unsafe for your baby to fall asleep with a bottle in their mouth. They could choke or hurt themselves. It also puts your baby at risk of baby bottle tooth decay. The liquid can pool in your baby’s mouth over night and create bacteria.
- Always hold your baby when you give them a bottle. Do not let your baby hold the bottle or carry a bottle around. The same rule applies to sippy cups.
- Give your older baby water between meals. Newborns do not need water. Water is good for older babies and can also help prevent tooth decay. If your baby is thirsty between meals, give them water only. The same rule should apply on a long trip or car ride.
- Limit the amount of juice you give your baby. Babies less than 6 months of age should not have juice at all. Babies who are 6 to 12 months old should have no more than 4 ounces of juice per day. The juice should be diluted with water (half juice, half water). Try to only serve juice at meals, and not as a snack.
- Limit the amount of sugar you give your baby. Once your baby starts eating food, at about 6 months old, be aware of how much sugar they get. Sugar is found in crackers, cookies, and fruit. If your child has sugar, clean their mouth right after eating. Do not dip your baby’s pacifier in honey or another substance that has sugar.
- Practice your own good oral health. This should start while you are pregnant and continue. You spend a lot of time with and close to your baby. This makes it easy to pass germs. Brush and floss often each day. Avoid sharing spoons or cups. Do not put a baby bottle or pacifier in your mouth and then in your baby’s mouth. Always use a clean pacifier.
Things to consider
Your baby should see a dentist for the first time around their first birthday. You can choose a dentist that specializes with kids. Talk to the dentist about fluoride. Most cities’ water systems contain a small amount of fluoride. If your baby isn’t getting enough, they may need a fluoride varnish or supplement.
Call your family doctor or dentist if you see signs of tooth decay. The earlier it is found, the easier it is to treat.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I know if my baby is at risk for tooth decay, cavities, or other teeth problems?
- What type of toothpaste should I use for my baby?
- What should I do if my baby won’t go to sleep without a bottle?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.