Children's Health

Why baby teeth are so important— And how to protect them

Here’s another good reason not to share spoons and forks with your baby.

Sure, it’s a little gross, but did you know that it’s also the number-one way your child could develop cavities in his or her baby teeth?

Dental caries, commonly known as cavities, aren’t just caused by eating too much sugar. It’s when the bacteria in our mouths—usually Streptococcus mutans—gobble up that sugar and send it back out as acid. That acid, combined with plaque, drills into our teeth, leading to tooth decay and cavities.

Babies are born free of the bacteria in their mouths. While it’s almost impossible for anyone to avoid getting the bacteria, moms can help slow down the process by never sharing food and utensils with their child, never drinking from the same bottle and especially never “cleaning” a paci by popping it in your own mouth before putting it in your child’s (admit it, many of us have been there).

Mom’s oral health is also very important,” said Dr. Tara Schafer, a pediatric dentist at the Dental College of Georgia. “The better health the mom’s mouth is in, the less likely she is to transmit bacteria to her child early on.”

Baby teeth really do matter

While it’s true that baby teeth aren’t permanent, toddler or child tooth decay is still a big problem.

For one, the cavities hurt just as much as those in permanent teeth. Then there’s the time and expense of filling cavities in teeth that will only be around for a few years. Baby teeth also serve an important role as “spacers”—making sure that the permanent teeth growing underneath have the room they need to emerge.

If baby teeth fall out or have to be extracted too early because of cavities, it’s possible for teeth to move and crowd out permanent teeth, unless you invest in devices to keep teeth where they’re supposed to be.

Here’s what else you can do

Bacteria are everywhere so there’s really no way to keep your child from getting the germs that can lead to cavities. And no one can avoid sugar all their lives either.

But there’s still a lot you can do to help keep that risk low. Along with not sharing food from the same utensil, practice good dental hygiene yourself by brushing with a fluoride toothpaste twice a day, along with flossing and avoiding sugary foods. Then do the same with your child.

“All babies should see a pediatric dentist by age 1, or within six months of getting their first tooth,” said Schafer, followed by regular visits every six months. Start brushing those tiny teeth as soon as they come in, twice a day, with just a small amount of fluoride toothpaste—a rice-sized amount or less for kids ages 3 and under. Kids older than 3 can start using a pea-size amount.

Remember, a little fluoride goes a long way. Too much fluoride can actually harm the teeth, leading to staining and pitting on the tooth’s surface, also known as dental fluorosis.

The goal is to leave a bit of fluoride on the teeth to help protect against cavities. So teach your child to spit out any excess toothpaste or to swish and spit with a tiny amount of water to get rid of the extra foam.

Sweet teeth

When it comes to sugar, think about this: How often are my child’s teeth exposed to sugar? And, do we clean the sugar/plaque/bacteria off teeth at least every night with a fluoride toothpaste?

The main problem with sugar is exposure. If a child’s teeth are exposed to sugar for long periods of time, without brushing with fluoride, that’s when bacteria get happy—and when cavities happen.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Your child drinks from a sippy cup with juice all day long.
  2. Your child goes to sleep with a bottle of milk in his or her mouth.
  3. Your child is constantly nibbling on snacks like sticky raisins, sweet cookies or chewy granola bars throughout the day.
  4. Your child takes liquid medicine—which in some cases can be up to 50 percent sugar—just before bed, without brushing teeth after.

And here’s what you can try instead:

  1. Switch to mostly water and diluted juice. And instead of a sippy, teach your child to use a straw cup. The straw aims the liquid farther back in the mouth, exposing fewer teeth to sugar, especially if your child is drinking juice or even milk, which has sugar too.
  2. Having your baby sleep at night with a bottle full of milk in his or her mouth is like letting them eat candy for 10 hours. Not only can it lead to pretty serious tooth decay, but it can also cause ear infections. We know it’s tough, but work to switch the bottle to earlier in the bedtime routine, say while you’re reading books. Always brush teeth afterward, then only offer water.
  3. Constant snacking ensures sugar is also in constant contact with teeth. “Eating two cookies at the same time is actually better for your teeth than having something sugary several times a day,” said Schafer. “Consistency is also important. Something sticky and chewy on the teeth is worse than something with just as much sugar that’s not sticky.” So serve these treats in moderation, but also time it right: Serve them after dinner, since toothbrushing typically follows soon after.
  4. While most parents don’t think about this, pediatric medicines are heavily sweetened for a reason: So your child will take them happily. But that sugar isn’t so good if it sticks to teeth all night long. “Here and there, it’s not a huge deal,” said Schafer. “But if your child takes medicine on a chronic basis, make sure the nighttime dose is given before toothbrushing so you can scrub off all that sugar before bedtime.”

Because here’s the other thing about cavities in toddler or children’s teeth: “Having had a cavity is the biggest predictor of having cavities in the future,” said Schafer. So if you can protect your child’s baby teeth now, those good habits can help their permanent teeth stay strong and cavity free.

Protect your children’s teeth with pediatric dental care
The pediatric dentists at Augusta University Dental Associates understand the special needs of children from birth through adolescence and those with special health care needs up to age 21. To schedule an appointment call 706-721-2716 to speak to a member of our Pediatric Dentistry team.

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.