Newsflash: Your baby can get cavities before they’re even walking!
The first tooth usually says hello anywhere between three and 12 months—and even by this tender age your little one’s pearly whites may already be decaying.
A combination of feeding habits at home and a delay in first visiting the dentist mean some parents are unaware that their babies’ young teeth may be developing problems.
By the time they get to kindergarten, two out of five children will have full-blown cavities, according to research from Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Dentistry.
June has spoken to dentists specializing in pediatric care to figure out why cavities are so common in young children and how we as parents can prevent them.
How Do We Prevent Decay?
There are three factors that have to present in order for decay to happen:
- A tooth
“If you eliminate one of those things then decay simply would not occur,” explains Hong Kong-based dental surgeon Dr. Caroline Mo.
“What happens is that when you consume anything that’s got sugar in it, the bacteria in the mouth will metabolize that sugar into acid and it’s that acid that causes damage to the teeth.”
When the tooth enamel mineral gets damaged by acid attacks, cavities can start appearing.
SPOTLIGHT ON: The Neonatal Tooth
The hard substance on a tooth—enamel—starts to mineralize when a woman is only six weeks’ pregnant.
So even at this early stage, a mom-to-be can impact her child’s dental health by ensuring she consumes enough calcium (1,000mg) and phosphorus (700mg).
Fluoride also gets incorporated into the tooth enamel in the fetus, creating a stronger type of mineral that’s more resistant to acid attacks.
“Daily ingestion of an optimal amount of fluoride [during pregnancy] is important, it keeps teeth strong,” stresses Dr. Mo.
What can be done?
Pregnant women are recommended to ingest 3mg of fluoride a day, which can be achieved through fluoridated tap water or supplements.
SPOTLIGHT ON: Sugar
Sugar is one of the primary causes of tooth decay, but most parents don’t know that sugars in milk can cause what’s known as ‘early childhood caries’ (dental decay or bottle decay).
It’s common for dentists to see cavities appearing in babies who cluster feed as they face frequent exposure to these sugars.
Did you know?
Slow eaters and kids who ‘pouch’ their food at the front of their mouths are more likely to get cavities as acid builds up here over time.
A study carried out by the University of Hong Kong also found an increase in decay in infants who used a nursing bottle at night — as these sugars would then lie on the teeth overnight.
Dr. Mo explains: “A lot of parents aren’t aware about decay from milk—not just from breastfeeding but from the bottle as well.
“What happens is that milk has sugar in it, so it’s the prolonged exposure that causes it. Especially when a baby cluster feeds or feeds really frequently, and at night, we see bottle decay.”
What can be done?
Brushing the teeth or cleaning the gums after a milk session can reduce the acidity in the mouth. If your baby is too little for a brush, you can use a gauze or gum wipe over the tooth’s surfaces after each feed—especially at night.
SPOTLIGHT ON: Bacteria
Children aren’t born with the bacteria that can cause tooth decay—they actually pick it up from a caregiver when they’re young.
“Moms don’t know it but around 19—33 months is a window of infectivity,” Hong Kong-based pediatric dentist Dr. Irene Lau explains.
“Kids are not born with the bacteria that causes cavities. If the parent or caretaker has a lot of cavities, that bacteria gets transmitted to the kid, and that kid will start getting cavities,” she adds.
The bacteria can be passed really easily‑from a simple kiss on the lips or from blowing on your child’s food to cool it down.
What can be done?
There’s no way to really avoid oral bacteria—but it’s about knowing the risk factor and accommodating your child’s diet and hygiene around it.
You could be stricter about the amount of sugar they consume for example, and more rigid about brushing and flossing (as well as visiting the dentist).
It’s All About Education
Your baby’s primary teeth may be temporary, but tooth decay at an early age can cause serious infections, interfere with speech development, affect nutrition and even disrupt the alignment of your child’s permanent teeth.
As all parents know, it’s almost impossible to eliminate sugar from a child’s diet completely.
Couple that with the abundance of oral bacteria in adults and you could believe that the battle against tooth decay is lost before you’ve begun.
But information is key to prevention and if we’re armed with this knowledge as parents we can make sensible, healthier choices every day that can impact our children’s dental health.