Dental care on infant and toddlers are often neglected due to one simple reason: their teeth are not yet permanent, so why should we invest our time (and money) to take care of these temporary baby teeth?
However, early dental care is very important to maintain healthy oral growth and your child’s overall health. The main risk surrounding oral health in early childhood is tooth decay (early dental caries), so let us begin by discussing the potential risks.
Early Childhood Dental Cavities
Early tooth decay or early dental caries refers to any development of tooth cavity in children between 6 months to 6 years of age.
Tooth decay in infancy and toddler age is also often referred to as baby bottle tooth decay, with the term “baby bottle” referring to the main cause of the tooth decay, which is sugary drinks that are commonly consumed through the baby bottle: milk, formula, juice, and so on.
Sugars can stain and cling to the toddler’s teeth for a long time, and when these sugars are processed by bacteria, the breakdown process will produce acids that can attack and destroy the teeth, slowly but surely.
Children whose pacifiers are dipped in sugar, syrup, or formula frequently are at an increased risk, as well as infants that are consuming sugary drinks before bed or at naptime. This, is due to the decreased production of saliva during sleep (saliva is the natural cleaner and antibacterial of our mouth).
Acid damage can cause decay or dental caries, and when left untreated, the decay can spread deeper and wider into the teeth, causing cavity and infection.
Why The Damage to Baby Teeth Is Important
As mentioned above, many parents think that decay and damage in baby teeth are not worrisome, because, after all, they are temporary teeth.
However, there are several reasons why early tooth decay must be treated properly:
- Obviously, the tooth cavity and especially infected tooth and gums can cause severe pain and sensitivity for the children.
- Due to pain and discomfort, the child might develop poor eating habits and speech issues
- Severe cavity or caries can damage the underlying adult tooth (permanently)
- During severe cases, infections can attack the gum tissue (developing periodontitis) and can damage the jawbone permanently
- When the baby tooth is extracted, the gap left can cause misalignment and improper growth (i.e. crooked teeth), and can also cause bone loss.
What Can Cause Tooth Decay In Childhood
Baby bottle tooth decay can be caused by the following factors:
- Frequent consumptions of sugary, sticky, or starch-rich foods and drinks
- Not brushing and flossing regularly. We can teach children to floss as early as when they are 2 years old.
- Prolonged and frequent use of sippy cup or baby bottle that is filled with sugary drinks (formula, milk, fruit juice, etc.)
The risk of tooth decay is affected by how much sugar actually comes into contact with the teeth and gums, and how long it stays there. If, for example, the toddler has the habit of snacking or drinking sugary beverages between meals, the teeth are being exposed to sugars over and over again, increasing the associated risks for a cavity.
Also, it’s important to note that bacteria can easily transfer from the parent’s mouth to the child’s through saliva. Avoid sharing toothbrushes and flosses, tasting baby’s food with the same spoon, and licking pacifiers to clean them.
How Can We Prevent Early Tooth Decay
A few simple steps can help prevent baby bottle tooth decay, which mainly involves maintaining proper oral hygiene from an early age, such as:
- Start brushing their teeth as soon as the first tooth comes in. You can use fluoride-free toothpaste or you can also brush without toothpaste
- After each meal (and snack), wipe the child’s gums and teeth gently with a washcloth or any clean cloth
- Don’t dip the soother in anything but water, especially not sugary beverages.
- Don’t allow your child to fall asleep with a bottle containing sugary drinks (including formula)
- Once all the baby teeth have grown, you can start teaching them to floss. Early on, you can help floss their teeth
- In areas without teeth (before the teeth have come in), clean and massage them gently after each meal
- Fluoride can significantly lower the risks of tooth decay. Check whether your household water contains enough fluoride. If not, ask your doctor or dentist on possible supplements (i.e., if it’s appropriate to use fluoride toothpaste)
- Start scheduling a regular visit to the dentist after the child’s first birthday. Ideally, the child should visit the dentist at least twice a year (once every six months) for regular cleaning and so that the dental professional can detect early signs of tooth decay.
- Avoid soft drinks and sugar waters. They are not recommended for children since they don’t contain any nutritional value. Especially, don’t fill the bottles you use for milk, water, and formula with these soft drinks.
- Reduce overall sugar in your child’s diet, especially for snacks and beverages between meals.
When Will A Baby Grow Teeth?
It’s important to understand that different children might have a different schedule for growing their teeth. Typically, however, they will start teething around 6 months of age, and they should have all of their baby teeth (20 in total, 10 in the bottom jaw and 10 in the top) by 3 years of age.
In most cases, the bottom front teeth usually are the first ones to grow, and the molars are the last.
Can I Still Use Pacifiers?
Yes, you can still use soothers or pacifiers to help your baby (or toddler) to sleep and other activities, but here are a few pointers:
- Choose the right pacifier size for your baby to allow proper teeth growth
- Check the soother regularly, and replace it when the nipple is already sticky or torn
- Make sure to maintain regular breastfeeding at least until the child is 12 months old
- Keep the pacifier clean at all times, avoid dipping the soother in sweet beverages (I.e. honey, soft drinks, etc.)
- Regularly decrease pacifier use by age 1, limit use to nap time or bedtime. They should stop using pacifiers by age 3 once all baby teeth have grown in.
End Words: When To Visit The Dentist
As mentioned above, it’s recommended for children to visit the dentist around 6 months after the first tooth came in, or when they are around a year old.
The child’s first visit to the dentist can be a good time to detect potential risks or early signs for teeth cavities, and you can also discuss proper dental hygiene practices and healthy dietary habits.