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Early Childhood Tooth Decay: Causes & Prevention

Junior Smiles® Kid's Dentist in Thornton CO; Dr. Dylan high fives his patientEarly childhood tooth decay can begin as soon as your child has their first tooth. Sometimes referred to as baby bottle tooth decay, this dental issue is important to tackle right away since the longer it is left untreated, the more likely that pain, infection and further decay can occur. Let’s take a look at some of the causes and the preventative measures you can take to avoid early childhood tooth decay in your family.

Cavities and tooth decay

Cavities are caused by the process of tooth decay. One of the main concerns most parents have for their children during their visit to the dentist are the presence of cavities. However, tooth decay starts before cavities develop and is caused by the foods that your child eats, especially before bedtime.

Dietary causes of childhood tooth decay

The liquids that you feed your child are the main drivers of early childhood tooth decay. While milk, juice and formula can all form part of your child’s early diet, they can also cause decay on teeth if fed before bedtime and allowed to sit on the teeth overnight. The reason that they can cause decay is because these liquids contain sugars. Bacteria in our mouths love to eat sugar and the main by-product of this process is acid, which can eat away at teeth overnight and erode the enamel.

The bacteria that is responsible

We know that bacteria in the mouth consume the sugars that are left on our child’s teeth overnight and then produce acid that erodes the teeth, leading to decay. But what are these bacteria exactly?

Known as streptococcus mutans, or S. mutans, this bacterium can cause decay in teeth from childhood to adulthood. The reason that young children are more susceptible to the damages of this bacteria is because their dental habits are not yet well-practiced, and because they often receive milk or formula before bedtime.

Lactic acid is the major by-product when S. mutans consumes the sugars left on the teeth and this demineralizes the tooth enamel, leading to decay. Over time, this decay can build up in one specific area and lead to pain, infection and ultimately, a cavity.

Did you know that you can pass cavity causing bacteria to your child?

The same cavity causing bacteria, S. mutans, mentioned above can be passed from parent to child and child to child! If you have cavities, you can literally pass the cavity causing bacteria from your mouth to you child (just like a cold!). Most commonly, transmission can occur via a kiss, sharing a spoon, and cleaning a pacifier off with your mouth. Children can pass the cavity causing bacteria to each other by sharing toys and putting them in their mouths. This is just another reason why you should bring your child to a pediatric dentist to make sure there is no active infection of the bacteria S. mutans.  It is also important to make sure you see your adult dentist in order to detect if you have an infection of cavity causing bacteria in your mouth so you don’t pass it to your children!

Does nursing really cause tooth decay?

Breast feeding your child before bedtime, or providing them with a bottle of formula before sleep, can possibly lead to tooth decay because of the sugars in these liquids. Because the child will be sleeping after consuming these liquids, some of the liquid will remain on the teeth and this provides the conditions for tooth decay to begin.

Early Childhood Tooth Decay Preventative Measures

Avoid providing sugary liquids to your child before bedtime. Water is a great substitute and can be put into a bottle so that you can quench your child’s thirst and also maintain the night time routine of bottle feeding. Parents can also start to ‘water down’ the milk, formula or juice that they feed their child at night over a period of weeks, and slowly ween the child off the sugary liquid.

If you do feed your infant sugary liquids before bed, try wiping their gums clean after feeding and before bedtime. If your infant already has teeth, we recommended to brush your infant’s new teeth to remove the harmful sugars that lead to tooth decay.  Under the age of 2, it is recommended just to use a light coating on the bristle tips of the tooth brush.  Finally, always talk to your pediatric dentist for advice on managing early childhood tooth decay and to find out some suggestions for preventing it.

Written by: Dr. T Jay Robinson, DMD

As a father of three children, Dr. T Jay understands the importance of compassion and patience when treating kids. With more than a decade of experience, he continues to look forward to seeing each of his young patients – and helping them grow into healthy adults.

Categories: Oral Hygiene

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