Many people falsely believe that the reason their infant or toddler has tooth decay is because they inherited “soft teeth.” The actual reason that cavities may be common in an entire family is because tooth decay is an infectious disease, the most common chronic disease among children. However, the good news is, tooth decay is completely preventable.
Dental caries, or cavities, are caused by particular strains of bacteria which live in the mouth. Mothers who carry these bacteria – especially those who have many cavities or fillings – can pass them to their baby or child through their saliva.
These bacteria thrive on a diet that’s high in sugar or refined carbohydrates, including sweet liquids such as sugar water, juice and soft drinks. Even baby formula, milk or breast milk has decay potential if you routinely put your child to bed with a bottle. When bacteria break down these sugars, they produce acids that then break down tooth enamel and cause decay.
Here are some important tips to help you take care of your children’s smiles and prevent early childhood caries:
- Reduce your own oral bacteria levels by caring for your teeth. Brush gently at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss at least once a day. Eat a healthy diet and limit snacks. Schedule regular dental exams and cleanings, and make sure that you have no tooth decay yourself.
- Avoid putting a child to bed with a bottle of milk, juice, sweetened water or soft drinks. Instead, fill it with water.
- Parents should avoid sharing toothbrushes, bottles, spoons and straws to protect babies and children from the transfer of cavity-causing bacteria.
- Wipe your baby’s gums after every feeding with a gauze pad or infant toothbrush and water, and begin to gently brush the teeth as soon as they erupt. Clean and massage the gums in areas that remain toothless and begin flossing when all the baby teeth are in place, usually by age 2 or 2½.
- Around age 2, when you can get your child to spit out the excess, you can start using a very small dab of fluoride toothpaste on their brush.
- A child’s first visit to the dentist should be made by their first birthday, or within six months after the first tooth erupts, whichever comes first. Your dentist will be able to provide guidance on the best ways to prevent tooth decay throughout childhood.
- Check your baby’s teeth regularly. If you suspect your child has a dental problem, schedule a visit to the dentist as soon as possible.
Be sure that good oral health habits start in infancy to ensure that your child will have a beautiful smile for a lifetime.