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Baby Bottle Tooth Decay: Shielding Your Baby's Teeth

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Tooth decay that occurs in infants or toddlers is commonly referred to as baby bottle tooth decay or early childhood caries (ECC). It is the most common disease found in children in the United States, more than asthma, according to the Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General and Dimensions of Dental Hygiene.

What Causes It?

Tooth decay is a transmissible disease of the teeth. The development of tooth decay involves an interaction between cariogenic (cavity causing) and noncariogenic (non-cavity causing) bacteria, fermentable carbohydrates and components in saliva, which collectively destroy tooth enamel surfaces. Tooth decay occurs when harmful plaque bacteria is passed from the mother (or primary caregiver) to the infant through the saliva. This typically occurs when bacteria from the mother's mouth comes in contact with a spoon or pacifier that is then given to the baby.

Baby bottle tooth decay is also associated with poor feeding habits. It occurs when a baby is put to bed with a bottle or when a child's teeth are frequently exposed to liquids, such as fruit juice, sugary drinks, milk (even breast milk) or formula for long periods.

Tooth decay can affect teeth as soon as they emerge. The teeth that are mainly affected are the upper front teeth; however, other teeth in the mouth can also be affected. There are different factors that contribute to an infant's susceptibility to tooth decay:

  • Early exposure of bacteria in the primary dentition (baby teeth)
  • Frequent bottle feeding at night
  • Frequent sugar consumption and snacking
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Enamel hypoplasia (a breakdown of the protective layer of teeth)
  • Inadequate amounts of fluoride

Why Are Baby Teeth So Important?

Baby teeth (primary teeth) are important because they allow children to adequately chew their food and speak and they hold the space in the jaw for the permanent teeth. Baby teeth usually appear by six months of age and can be susceptible to tooth decay. Unfortunately, tooth decay can contribute to tooth pain and harm the erupting permanent teeth. It is essential to take care of baby teeth even though they are in the mouth temporarily before they are lost and fall out.

What Are the Numbers of Babies Affected?

In the United States, baby bottle tooth decay is highly prevalent among children younger than six years of age. In fact, 44 percent of 5-year-old children have experienced tooth decay. The prevalence of dental caries is primarily in minority and low socioeconomic groups.

How is It Treated or Prevented?

  • Never allow a baby or toddler to fall asleep with a bottle that contains fruit juices, formula, milk, sweetened liquids or a pacifier dipped in honey or sugar.
  • Avoid sharing saliva with the baby through feeding spoons or licking pacifiers.
  • Clean the baby's teeth and gums with a clean gauze pad, washcloth or xylitol wipe.
  • Brush the baby's teeth using a child-sized toothbrush with water when they first come in. You should get a consultation from your child's dentist or physician if you plan on using fluoride paste prior to age two.
  • Children should be supervised when they are brushing, so they can spit without swallowing toothpaste, usually around ages six or seven.
  • Encourage your child to drink from a cup before his first birthday.
  • Promote healthy eating and drinking habits.

When Should You Seek a Dentist?

Talk to your dentist about scheduling a dental visit for your child once the first tooth appears. During the first visit, the dentist can demonstrate the proper technique for cleaning your baby's teeth.