It is hard to imagine that a baby’s very first teeth – all pearly white and brand new – can be susceptible to tooth decay as soon as they break through the gum. I was shocked when my baby son got his first two teeth pop up at only 4 months of age! My main focus at this point really was alleviating the pain and discomfort that teething was causing him as he was madly chewing everything in his path. But I was also very confused initially at how I actually clean those itty-bitty teeth. Do they make tiny toothbrushes? Can a baby use toothpaste? Do I even need to clean them before he has started solids?
Tooth decay, whether in adults or in children, is not pleasant and without a doubt something we want to avoid altogether if possible. It can have serious impacts on a child’s long-term health and can lead to very expensive – and possibly painful – treatment down the line if not managed appropriately early on.
If you think your child may already have some baby bottle tooth decay, there is plenty you can do right now to stop the damage and get your little one’s dental health back on track. So here’s the lowdown on baby bottle tooth decay!
What Causes Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?
While many parents are familiar with the phrase ‘baby bottle tooth decay’, tooth decay in general is not related solely to bottle feeding your baby. Many adults do not realize that tooth decay is actually a disease. It occurs when a certain type of harmful bacteria is introduced to the mouth and create a sticky covering over the teeth known as plaque.
Tooth decay is heavily connected to diet as these bad bacteria will feed on sugars present in food and drink and then create an acid that erodes the tooth surface over time creating holes, or cavities. Cavities are permanent damage to your teeth and require fillings. We will talk more about teeth and nutrition in just a moment.
Unfortunately, tooth decay will eventually cause pain and discomfort in the mouth and can lead to a much higher risk of infection in the mouth. If left untreated or poorly managed, tooth decay can cause teeth to drop out or need to be removed by a dentist. Severe tooth decay in your baby’s mouth will have serious consequences for their long-term oral health and development.
A child’s speech, jaw and nutrition development can all be negatively impacted, making it vital for parents to understand how to avoid baby bottle tooth decay and how to treat it if it does occur. Other things not yet mentioned that can cause tooth decay in your baby can include vomiting, severe reflux and even medications that contain a sweetener such as some teething or pain-relief medications.
How Do I Know If My Baby Has Tooth Decay?
Take a good look inside your baby’s mouth and observe their teeth and gums carefully and gently. Signs and symptoms of tooth decay in you baby’s mouth will include:
- White or brown stains on their teeth
- Red and swollen gums
- Dark, sometimes black holes in the teeth
- Broken teeth
- Evidence of infection in the gum such as: lumps, swelling or pimples around the gum area or even on your child’s face.
Can Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Affect Permanent Teeth?
It can be tempting to be a little relaxed about the health of your child’s ‘baby teeth’, knowing that they have a whole new set of adult teeth that will replace them soon enough. Unfortunately, tooth decay in baby teeth can affect permanent teeth.
If tooth decay results in baby teeth falling out or being removed earlier than would have naturally occurred, adult teeth can begin to move and fill the gaps in such a way that doesn’t leave enough space for other adult teeth down the track.
Are Bottles Bad for Babies Teeth?
Bottles can be a helpful, sometimes essential way of feeding your baby formula or breastmilk. They are often associated with causing tooth decay in children but bottles themselves aren’t inherently bad if good nutrition and dental hygiene principles are followed.
We will chat about these in more detail in a moment. However, there are a couple of valid reasons why bottles are linked with tooth decay.
- If bottles continue to be regularly used after your baby’s first birthday, there is a greater chance of tooth decay developing. This is because your moving and grooving baby is more prone to crawling or walking around with their bottle and taking sips over a longer period of time, rather than finishing the bottle in one sitting and having the bottle removed. Frequent sipping can result in tooth decay.
- If you baby takes a bottle (of liquid other than water) to bed, the milk can pool in the mouth once your baby falls asleep and promote the growth of harmful bacteria on the teeth, which produce the acid that damages enamel.
How Do I Take My Baby Off the Bottle?
As your baby is eating more solids and requiring less milk around the age of one, try to wean your baby from the bottle to instead using a cup if possible. This is also helpful for their speech development. The longer you leave it, the harder it is likely to be.
You can gradually and gently reduce the amount in each bottle, and the amount of bottles over a 24 hour period. If your baby gets comfort from the sucking itself, it might help to try giving your baby a blankie or comforter that smells like you they can suck instead.
You can start teaching your baby to drink from a cup from as early as 6 months of age and there are so many different kinds of cups available, ranging from sippy cups, to leak and smash proof designs that are great for travelling.
From around 7 months of age our baby wanted to drink out of whatever we were using, so we would often carefully help him take sips of water from our own cups and glasses just to get him used to the different muscle and swallowing motion.
Again, if the comfort of being close to you when receiving a bottle is what your baby loves, try giving them a cuddle and holding them close as they are learning to drink from a cup.
How Do You Stop Tooth Decay Once It Has Started? Is Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Reversible?
Like so many health and dental issues in particular, prevention is much better than cure. Decay that has caused a cavity is permanent and will need to be treated by a dentist. Decay that has not yet caused a hole in the tooth is reversible if the tooth enamel is given opportunity to repair through the minerals in our saliva and fluoride in toothpaste and water.
However, if your baby is already experiencing some tooth decay, there are a number of things you can do to help, which we will go through next.
- Tips with Bottle-Feeding: As already mentioned, try not to let your baby fall asleep with their bottle. Let them finish their drink before going to bed, and ideally before they have brushed their teeth. Once you baby has finished drinking, take the bottle away – don’t let them continue to sip on it over an extended period of time (unless it is water!). Move your baby from a bottle to a cup around 1 year of age.
- Nutrition: Diet is central to oral health. Food and drink containing sugar will feed harmful bacteria in the mouth, promoting decay. Avoid giving your baby sugary drinks (such as juice, sweetened water, soda) altogether if possible. Limit the amount of sugary foods (candies, highly sweetened cakes and cookies, chocolates, ice cream etc) that your baby eats and try to save them for special occasions only. It is best not to let you baby ‘graze’ on snacks all day, reducing the amount of ‘acid attacks’ on their teeth.
- Good Dental Hygiene: Supervise your children up until at least the age of 7 as they brush their teeth to make sure they are brushing with an effective motion, for a long enough period of time and using enough toothpaste (and not swallowing it!). It is advised by dental associations to use toothpaste that contains fluoride to help repair and protect tooth enamel, though there are many child-friendly toothpastes on the market that tend to be non-toxic and use more natural ingredients, with and without fluoride, if this is important for your family. Brush your children’s teeth at least twice a day, including just before they go to bed. And yes, you do need to floss your baby’s teeth!
- Pacifier Hygiene: Do not dip your baby’s pacifier in sugar or honey before giving it to them to use. To prevent the transfer of harmful bacteria from your own mouth to your baby’s, try not to use the same spoons and cups, and don’t lick your baby’s pacifier to clean it.
- Visit your dentist regularly: Most dentists recommend that your baby have their first visit to the dentist aaround the time of their first birthday, even if they only have a couple of teeth by this stage. It’s a great idea to encourage visits to the dentist to be positive, normal and even fun experiences for your children, so they don’t develop a fear about going. Ongoing dental visits are generally encouraged every 6 to 12 months, or as often as recommended by your dentist.
Baby bottle tooth decay is a serious concern, however with the right information and support, you can be confident as a parent that you are taking great of your baby’s teeth and future oral hygiene. What will speak volumes to your baby throughout their childhood ahead is to see you modelling great dental hygiene habits yourself – so make sure you are visiting the dentist regularly yourself, and even taking your child along with you to get used to the experience from a young age.
You can make looking after your teeth fun by brushing and flossing together with your child, or have a song that you sing when it’s time to clean teeth. By simply building these good habits into your child’s life as soon as that first tooth cuts through, you are setting your little one up for a lifetime of strong, healthy teeth!