Are Little Cavities a Big Deal? Oral Health for Babies and Toddlers Explained
Published: January 29, 2024
By: Malia Jacobson & Paige Townley
Every time you test the temperature of your baby’s bottle with your mouth, or share food, a straw, or a utensil with your toddler, you’re also sharing bacteria that cause tooth decay. That’s right, cavity-causing dental decay is an infectious, transmissible disease that parents can unknowingly pass to their children, according to the National Institutes of Health.
After decades of decline, the rates of cavities in children under 5 are on the rise; experts blame a diet higher in sugary foods and drinks.
“Cavities in baby teeth are very important to manage,” ” explains Baker Chambliss, D.M.D., of Pediatric Dental & Orthodontic Associates. “Left untreated, cavities can lead to pain and tooth loss, which can affect the development and spacing of permanent teeth. High sugar intake, poor oral hygiene, low fluoride exposure, and genetic/environmental factors all play a role in caries development.”
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the NIH, reports that one-third to one-half of children under age 5 develop cavities in baby teeth. But, like many infectious diseases, dental decay is preventable. Here’s how to protect your child’s oral health, even if pearly whites are still months away.
WHEN TO VISIT A DENTIST
In the National Poll on Children’s Health, researchers from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that most parents weren’t sure when their child should first visit the dentist. Out of this majority, over 16 percent believed kids didn’t need to visit a dentist until after age 4, reflecting a common belief that cleaning baby teeth isn’t all that important—they’ll just fall out anyway, right?
Wrong—decay in baby teeth can harm oral health both now and for years to come. The bacteria that cause tooth decay in baby teeth can break down the enamel of permanent teeth as they begin to come in, making these teeth more vulnerable to cavities. And because baby teeth serve as placeholders that help guide permanent teeth into position, losing baby teeth too early as a result of tooth decay can create a crooked, crowded smile later on, experts say.
“Baby teeth are extremely important!” notes Olga M. Sanchez- Hernandez D.M.D., M.S., M.S. of McCalla Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry. “They help us eat, talk, and smile! We need teeth to chew our food so that we can swallow it easier. We also need our teeth to pronounce words properly. Baby teeth also save the space for the permanent teeth that are underneath. If they are lost early due to decay spacing problems can arise.”
Scheduling a dental visit by age 1, or six months after the first tooth pops up, helps safeguard oral health in a few important ways, per experts at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. First, establishing a relationship with a dentist early on helps pave the way for smoother, less stressful visits in the future, when your child begins “real” dental cleanings or needs a filling. Visiting the dentist by 12 months of age also helps the dentist spot any early signs of trouble and advise you on the best way to care for your child’s oral health.
“This might seem early, however, starting early is the key to a lifetime of good dental health,” adds Sanchez-Hernandez. “This dental visit should be thought of as a well-baby checkup with the child’s physician.”
HOW BABY CAVITIES BEGIN
What’s the dentist looking for at these early visits? Before tooth decay causes a cavity, it may cause white spots on tooth enamel, which signal that the enamel is breaking down. From there, a cavity may look like a small, light-brown spot on your child’s tooth. If the cavity isn’t treated, the spot becomes larger and may turn darker brown or black, the doctors say.
More advanced tooth decay may cause a toothache, sensitivity to hot or cold, bad breath, and swelling. Per the American Dental Association, tooth decay in baby teeth can affect a child’s overall well-being—kids with painful teeth are less likely to eat enough, and won’t get the nutrition they need to thrive.
“Any dark or white spots on baby teeth should be examined by a dentist,” says Sanchez-Hernandez. “Stains on teeth could be developmental, caused by pigments of things we eat, could be decalcifications or caries. Your dentist will be able to determine the difference and treat accordingly.”
WHAT HAPPENS IF MY BABY HAS A CAVITY?
After a complete dental exam, your child’s dentist may suggest X-rays to help diagnose tooth decay. In many cases, small cavities can be filled in a single dentist visit; the dentist removes the decayed enamel and uses tooth-colored material to fill the hole. Though the process may not delight your child, they’ll usually be able to eat or drink soon afterward and shouldn’t experience pain.
Dead or seriously decayed teeth may need to be completely removed, the dentists say. This process may take two or more visits, and children may be sedated. If removing decayed baby teeth will affect the placement of permanent teeth, your child’s dentist may recommend a composite bridge (like a partial denture) that replaces the missing teeth and holds the remaining teeth in place until permanent teeth come in.
CARING FOR GUMS AND BABY TEETH
Before your baby’s teeth appear, use a (clean) soft cloth or small piece of gauze to gently wipe the gums after feedings. This helps prevent sugary milk or food residue from remaining on your baby’s gums, providing an environment where the bacteria that cause tooth decay can grow. As Chambliss stresses, minimize your child’s sugar intake through bottles, never allowing the child to go to bed with a bottle of milk or any sugar-containing liquid.
Start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as the first one appears, advises Stanford Children’s Health. Young toddlers need just a dab of toothpaste—about the size of a grain of rice—while preschoolers can use a pea-sized amount. After age two, add daily flossing to your child’s routine. “Beginning the routine of daily oral care early gets your child used to the process of daily oral hygiene,” Chambliss adds.
Does your toddler need an electric toothbrush? Most dentists say no—any child-sized, extra-soft toothbrush will work. But electric toothbrushes can help coax reluctant brushers and help establish healthy habits, especially when kids choose the toothbrush (or at least the color) themselves. Pair the chosen toothbrush with a kid-friendly brushing app (see sidebar) to create a fun routine that makes brushing tiny teeth a bit less burdensome. We’ll say “Ahhhh” to that!
Paige Townley is a staff writer and area freelance writer.