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Oral Care

What Is Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?

Tooth decay in infants and very young children is often referred to as baby bottle tooth decay. Baby bottle tooth decay happens when sweetened liquids or those with natural sugars (like milk, formula, and fruit juice) cling to an infant's teeth for a long time. Bacteria in the mouth thrive on this sugar and make acids that attack the teeth.

At risk are children whose pacifiers are frequently dipped in sugar or syrup. Giving an infant a sugary drink at nap time or nighttime is particularity harmful, as the flow of saliva decreases during sleep.

Although baby bottle tooth decay typically happens in the upper front teeth, other teeth may also be affected.

Think baby teeth are temporary, and therefore, not important? Think again. Baby teeth are necessary for chewing, speaking, and smiling. They also serve as placeholders for the adult teeth. If baby bottle tooth decay is left untreated, pain and infection can result. Severely decayed teeth may need to be removed.

If teeth are infected or lost too early due to baby bottle tooth decay, your child may develop poor eating habits, speech problems, crooked teeth, and damaged adult teeth. In addition, the chances that adult teeth will end up being crooked are greatly increased.

The good news is that a few simple steps can help stave off baby bottle tooth decay. They include implementing good oral hygiene at an early age. Here's how:

  • Wipe the baby's gums with a clean gauze pad or washcloth after each feeding.
  • Begin brushing your child's teeth, without toothpaste, when his or her first tooth comes in.
  • Clean and massage gums in areas without teeth.
  • Floss once all the baby teeth have come in.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough fluoride, which helps lessen cavities. If your local water supply does not contain fluoride, ask your dentist or doctor how your child should get it.
  • Schedule regular dental visits by your child's first birthday. Dentists also offer special sealant coatings, which can help prevent tooth decay in children.

Other techniques to help prevent baby bottle tooth decay:

  • Don't fill bottles with sugar water and soft drinks. Bottles are for milk, water, formula, and special electrolyte-containing solutions when the child has diarrhea. Juices, mixed half and half with water to avoid empty calories, are a way to interest your child in a "sippy cup." Soft drinks are not recommended for children, as they have no nutritional value.
  • Never allow your child to fall asleep with a bottle containing anything but water.
  • Never give your child a pacifier dipped in anything sweet.
  • Reduce the sugar in your child's diet less, especially between meals.

It's never too late to break bad habits. If your child drinks sweetened liquids from the bottle and/or sleeps with a bottle, break the habit now and cut the risk of baby bottle tooth decay by:

  • Gradually diluting the bottle contents with water over 2 to 3 weeks.
  • Once that period is over, fill the bottle only with water.

Remember that healthy baby teeth will lead to healthy permanent teeth.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Steve Drescher, DDS on April 14, 2013

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