They may only be around for a few years, but your baby’s teeth are an essential part of their growth and development. Your child’s first teeth also help make sure their permanent teeth come in correctly and hold spaces open for adult teeth to erupt. If a baby’s teeth have decay, it can seep below the gum line and affect the adult teeth that have yet to erupt.
Untreated tooth decay can cause problems for your little one’s speech, affect their ability to eat, and can make them self-conscious or embarrassed at school.
Sometimes called baby bottle tooth decay, cavities can be caused by prolonged exposure to the sugar present in formula, breast milk, or juice when given to a child in a bottle or sippy cup at bedtime or instead of a pacifier. It is usually present in the top front teeth, but it can affect any tooth that has prolonged contact and can spread to other teeth if left untreated.
Tooth decay is a disease, and it can also be spread from a parent or someone who feeds a baby if they use their own mouth to clean a spoon or pacifier, making them susceptible to tooth decay.
The first symptoms to appear are usually white, demineralized spots on your child’s teeth. Once the decay breaks through the enamel, these areas may turn brown or black. Swollen, bleeding gums and bad breath can also be signs of tooth decay. If your child has a fever, seems unusually fussy or has facial swelling, visit a doctor right away to rule out serious illness and call their dentist to make an appointment for an exam.
If your child is showing the first signs of demineralization, their dentist may use topical fluoride treatments to rebuild the softened areas and reverse the decay. Once the decay has broken through the enamel, a filling or stainless-steel crown is usually recommended. Many dentists no longer recommend extracting a baby tooth just because it has a cavity because they are so vital in the proper development of a child’s mouth dental health. Your child’s dentist might suggest sedation or even general anesthesia, depending upon your child's age and maturity level.
The best way to treat early childhood caries is to prevent it in the first place. Some steps to follow:
- Wipe your baby’s gums with a soft, clean cloth to keep their gums clean. Once their teeth start coming in, gently brush their teeth with a rice-sized smear of toothpaste.
- Help your child brush their teeth after meals, snacks, and bottles to establish good home care habits and to remove food particles and debris.
- Don’t give a child a bottle filled with sugary drinks or juices.
- Only give your child a bottle for feeding, not as a convenient sippy cup and don’t let your child go to bed with a bottle unless it contains just water.
- Don’t use your mouth to clean utensils or pacifiers before putting them in your child’s mouth.
- Encourage healthy eating habits and lead by example.
Bad hygiene habits during the early years can follow your child through adolescence into adulthood. By caring for their baby teeth and showing them proper care techniques as they grow, you can be sure your child will have the knowledge they need to protect their teeth for life.