How to Tell Your Patients about Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

Recently, a segment on NBC’s Today Show featured Monica Eaton-Cardone explaining some of the safety concerns with so-called “smart toys.” While the short clip was informative, it emphasized the growing realization of just how deeply computers and technology have infiltrated our lives, and some of the possible repercussions that have yet to be addressed.

That is a healthy thing. But too much focus on the high-tech areas of our lives can tend to make us forget some of simpler things that still need attention. And since we’re already talking about kids and toys, let’s look at a subject dentists are aware of, but new parents may not be: the bottle.

 Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

“Baby bottle tooth decay” is the common term for early childhood cavities. (Notice how we did not use scientific or industry-related words here: particularly when talking to parents about their kids, it’s usually best to use common, everyday language as much as possible.)

Typically occurring in infants and toddlers, baby bottle tooth decay may, of course, affect all of the teeth, but is usually most prevalent in the front teeth on the upper jaw. Unfortunately, it’s easy for already over-stressed parents to dismiss BBTD as a non-issue: after all, they’re just baby teeth, right? Why worry?

Explaining the Danger

To start, acknowledge that yes, the child’s first (primary) teeth will eventually be replaced … then stress that in the meantime, their health is exceptionally important. Why? Well, baby teeth help a child chew food correctly, are a crucial aid in speech development, and perhaps most importantly, maintain space for the permanent teeth that will supplant them. Point out that missing teeth can even prevent the tongue from posturing abnormally in the mouth as the child grows!

Explain the consequences: when baby bottle tooth decay becomes too severe, you might not be able to save the affected tooth or teeth … and if baby teeth are lost prematurely, the adjacent teeth tend to shift to fill the gap, so a spacer must be inserted to keep the remaining teeth aligned.

This all can cause pain and discomfort for the child, and no parent wants that. Plus, even with all this preventative care, a tooth lost too soon can impact adult teeth, potentially leading to years of orthodontic treatment. In other words, prevention now can save parents a lot of hassle and money later.

So the answer is, yes, it is worth worrying about.

Where Does Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Come From?

Parents will want to know where the decay starts. Luckily, this is easy to both explain and understand: tooth decay is caused by plaque-causing bacteria. Babies are more susceptible due to the frequent exposure to sweetened liquids. This can include baby formula, juice, and sweetened water – in short, almost any fluid a parent might fill a baby bottle with. Some studies even suggest that breast milk can contribute to decay.

Every time a child consumes a sugary liquid, acid attacks the teeth and gums, Sugars in these liquids collect around a child’s teeth and gums, feeding the bacteria and eventually leading to decay.

This phenomenon is compounded through extended exposure: milk, formula, or juice right a bedtime or nap stays in the mouth longer, creating more bacteria and allowing it more time to damage enamel.

Can Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Be Prevented?

All good parents want the best for their children, but as we pointed out earlier, moms and dads are already overstressed caring for an infant. Fortunately, prevention of infant tooth decay is comparatively easy to remember and to do. Present your patients with a simple list of steps, such as the following:

  1. Never dip a pacifier in sugar, honey, or other sweeteners.
  2. Give your baby water in his or her bottle, especially during naps and at bedtime; this not only protects a child’s teeth, it’s a good habit for long-term health.
  3. Limit the overall amount of juice and other sugary drinks; adults tend to think of water as boring, but kids haven’t made this assumption yet … often, they are just thirsty.
  4. Wipe a baby’s gums with a soft, clean, damp washcloth after meals.
  5. Avoid cleaning a baby’s pacifier with your mouth, sharing chewed food or using the same spoon; it seems safe, but you’re actually sharing bacteria your child has yet to build up defenses against.

Start Good Dental Habits Early

If it’s not already past this time, try to schedule the baby’s first dental check-up between 6 and 12 months. If water is not fluoridated in your area, consider suggesting a fluoride supplement.

The main point you want to stress is that starting early is important, easy, and the key to a lifetime of good dental health. For more information check out the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) online.