Baby bottle tooth decay, also called early childhood caries (ECC), is the deterioration of a young child’s tooth enamel due to prolonged or excessive exposure to sugar or sweetened liquids. Bacteria naturally present in the mouth break down these sugars, producing acid which attacks the teeth. Over time, the enamel becomes damaged and the teeth become decayed.
Baby bottle tooth decay typically affects the incisors (front teeth) but can cause damage to any of the teeth. Learn how to prevent cavities by reading Preventing Baby Bottle Tooth Decay in our dental topics.
Baby Bottle Tooth Decay – Early Childhood Caries (ECC)
Early childhood caries can also be called:
- Bottle mouth
- Infant caries or cavities
Causes of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay/Early Childhood Caries
Baby bottle tooth decay often occurs due to a baby or child frequently falling asleep with a bottle containing a sweetened liquid. These cavities in children can also result from carrying and drinking from a bottle or sippy cup continually throughout the day. These practices allow the sugar to constantly coat the teeth and quickly cause cavities.
Common sugar-containing contributors include:
- Infant formula
Tooth decay can also begin with bacteria that is passed from a parent or caregiver when a feeding spoon is passed from one to the other. The saliva remaining on the spoon can transmit the natural bacteria from one person to another.
Signs of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
Typically, the first symptom of baby bottle tooth decay is the appearance of white spots on the surface of the teeth. Without treatment, infant caries can progress to more severe decay.
Symptoms of advanced baby bottle tooth decay can include:
- Bad breath
- Brown/black spots on teeth
- Red, swollen, or bleeding gums
- Fever (due to infection)
Complications Resulting from Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
While no one welcomes a cavity in a permanent tooth, many people do not realize the importance of baby teeth in long term dental health. Children with untreated early childhood caries may experience:
- Chronic pain
- Chewing difficulty (which can lead to poor eating/nutritional habits)
- Dental infection
- Tooth loss
Severe or widespread decay can cause tooth loss or the need for one or more tooth extractions. When baby teeth are lost prematurely, the permanent teeth can be seriously affected. Without primary teeth holding space for them, the permanent teeth can become overcrowded upon eruption or come in misaligned.
Treating Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
If detected early, in its beginning stages (at the appearance of white spots), baby bottle tooth decay can be reversed with fluoride treatments to remineralize the teeth. If the decay has progressed further, restorative dental care may be used to treat the cavities.
Your pediatric dentist may recommend:
- Dental crowns
- Space maintainers (to hold the permanent tooth’s place if a baby tooth is lost)
- Pediatric partials (to replace lost front teeth until the permanent teeth erupt)
Preventing Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
Being aware of the practices that cause baby bottle tooth decay is the first step in preventing it. Proper dental hygiene and bottle-feeding habits will help keep your child’s baby teeth healthy and strong until the permanent teeth come in.
Steps to avoid early childhood caries include:
- Limit consumption of sweetened beverages and juices: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 6 ounces of juice only per day and no juice before 6 months of age. If your child is accustomed to drinking juices, gradually dilute the beverage by adding water incrementally over 2-3 weeks until only water is given between feedings.
- Never put your child to sleep with a bottle of milk or juice: If your child does need a bottle at bedtime, fill it with water; however, some pediatricians advise against any bottles in the crib unless the child is able to sit up.
- Limit snacks containing sugar: Starting healthy eating habits early will help ensure good long-term dental health.
- Adhere to specific feeding times: Do not let your child carry a bottle or sippy cup containing sweetened beverages (milk, formula, juice, soda) for extended periods of time, as this allows the teeth to be exposed to sugar virtually all day.
- Use a clean spoon to share food with your child: Sharing utensils can transmit bacteria from one person to another.
- Begin cup training around 6 months of age: The American Dental Association (ADA) advises weaning off the bottle by 12 months and early training helps with a smooth transition.
- Do not place honey, sugar, or syrup on your child’s pacifier: Honey can be harmful to babies under 1, and placing sweeteners on a pacifier coats the teeth with sugar. Keep pacifiers clean to avoid residual bacteria that may linger after use.
- Wipe your child’s gums after feedings: A clean, damp cloth should be used to remove debris.
- Instill good dental hygiene early: Brush your child’s teeth with a soft toothbrush at least twice per day upon the eruption of the first tooth. Continue to help with brushing until your child can thoroughly clean his/her teeth without help (typically about age 6). Your dentist can advise you on choosing a toothpaste for your child and dental hygiene for children.
- Schedule regular dental check-ups for your child: Twice a year is recommended once the teeth begin to erupt.
At Discovery Kids Pediatric Dentistry, we provide kid-friendly, high-quality dental care that will help your child enjoy a lifetime of healthy smiles.
If your child is showing signs of early childhood caries, or you are looking for a dental home where your child’s oral health is the top priority, please contact Dr. Zarmin Lalani and her team at Discovery Kids Pediatric Dentistry Frisco, Texas, by completing an online appointment request or phone 469-365-5437.