Tooth Decay in Children: Why It Happens & How to Prevent It

by Meiling Wong
12 months ago

tooth decay in children

Seeing the white pearlies of our babies always make us smile. But do you know that tooth decay can happen in infants and very young children? This is often referred to as baby bottle tooth decay or nursing caries.  

What causes tooth decay in children? 

Toddler tooth decay occurs when a baby’s mouth is infected by acid-producing bacteria, which can be passed through saliva. Parents and caregivers can pass this bacterium to their babies when they test foods before feeding them to babies, share spoons and cups or clean off a pacifier in the parent’s or caregiver’s mouth.   

Another way a young child can contract tooth decay is when the child’s teeth and gums are exposed to any liquid or food for long periods or frequently throughout the day. The sugar (natural or added) in the liquid or foods is changed to acid by bacteria in the mouth. The acid erodes the outer enamel of our baby’s teeth, causing them to decay.

It is therefore not a good idea to let your baby nurse him/herself to sleep with a bottle of formula, milk or juice in his/her mouth. This habit may lead to tooth decay in children

Here are the signs that your baby has developed tooth decay:  

  • The appearance of a dull, white band along the gum line (the area at the base of the teeth, near the gums)
  • Brown spots on the teeth
  • Gums might be red and swollen
  • Blackened holes in the teeth or broken teeth
  • Discolouration

Read also: Dental Care for Toddlers: 6 Ways to Care For and Protect Your Child’s Teeth

Tooth discoloration is not tooth decay

Parents are immediately alarmed when they see their toddler’s teeth stained and discoloured. However, tooth discoloration is not tooth decay. It is, however, an early warning of tooth decay if no proper action is taken to prevent it. 

There are a number of reasons for tooth discoloration in young children. Drinking sugary beverages like cola, cranberry or grape juice can erode your toddler’s teeth enamel because the acidity of these drinks erodes the natural enamel and stain the teeth. Foods with rich colour pigmentations like blackberries or beetroot may also cause your toddler’s teeth to discolour.

Another cause for discoloured teeth is if the mother takes certain antibiotics like tetracycline during pregnancy, or if the baby takes iron supplements. A tooth injury caused by a fall can damage the nerves and blood supply to your toddler’s tooth and cause the tooth to turn a permanent grayish colour. 

Excessive fluoride in tap water or toothpaste can also be a culprit and cause brown spots or white streaking on the surface of your toddler’s teeth. 

If your baby’s teeth have pits, fissures, deep grooves, and yellow or brown spots on the surface of the teeth, he might be suffering from an inherited condition known as amelogenesis imperfecta, or enamel hypoplasia. 

Yellowed or discoloured teeth can affect your toddler’s confidence while growing up. It can also be an indication of a latent illness. So, better pay the dentist a visit to get the correct diagnosis and help.

The good news is that with the right care and good dental hygiene practices, discoloration and tooth decay in children can be prevented and your child can grow up to have healthy teeth and a lifetime of smiles.

How to prevent tooth discoloration and toddler tooth decay?

Follow these practices to avoid discoloration of teeth in babies and toddlers:

1. When your baby is teething and the teeth erupt from the gums, use a clean gauze or washcloth to clean the gums and mouth.

2. Encourage good dental hygiene by brushing your baby or toddler’s teeth twice a day. Supervise older toddlers to brush their own teeth with the correct techniques.

3. To prevent toddler tooth decay, avoid giving your child any sugary juices or sodas, or dipping pacifiers in honey or sweet liquids.

4. Do not put your child to bed with a bottle. The presence of milk and sugar makes the environment ideal for bacterial growth. Rinse your baby’s mouth with water after a milk feed.

5. Wean your toddler (from bottle) to cup as soon as possible. If your child wants a drink in his sippy cup between meals, fill it with only water. Drinking from a cup is less likely to cause the liquid to collect around the teeth. Also, a cup cannot be taken to bed.

6. Discourage your child from walking around with or drink from a bottle for long periods. 

7. Use toothpaste with low fluoride content until your baby learns how to spit it out. 

8. Schedule regular dental check-ups (every six months) for your baby or toddler. The dentist can spot tooth decay in children and share preventive measures to manage the health of your baby’s teeth.

9. Limit the amount of sweet juices or sticky foods your child eats. 

Read also: The Amazing Health Benefits of Manuka Honey

We wish your baby a lifetime of healthy teeth and smiles.