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Tooth Decay

By Mara Paradis, M.D.

Toddler boy looking away from the camera and smiling.

​Tooth decay is one of the most common infectious diseases of childhood. It may be tempting to put oral hygiene on the back burner at this age because baby teeth are not permanent, but they are very important. This first set of teeth preserves spacing for permanent teeth and helps a child chew and talk. Early dental care also sets the stage for future oral hygiene habits.​

Signs of Tooth Decay

If your child is a victim of tooth decay, you may notice the following signs:

  • Thinning enamel
  • Tooth discoloration
  • Indentation

It is possible for a child to have tooth decay long before these symptoms surface.

Preventing Tooth Decay

Avoid extended contact of sugar with your child’s teeth. Do not dip your child’s pacifier in honey, syrup or any sugary substance to encourage him or her to take it, and remember that a bottle or sippy cup is not a substitute for a pacifier. Your child should not go to bed or play with a bottle. The constant contact with sugary liquids creates a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

Limit the amount of sugar your child consumes. After 12 months of age, your child should drink only water between meals. Juices and milk contain sugar that can lead to acid formation. For this reason, among others, it is recommended that children consume no more than 4 ounces of juice a day.

Clean your child’s mouth after every feeding. Before teeth are visible, this can be done using gauze or a wash cloth dampened with warm water. When teeth begin to appear, usually around 6 months of age, transition to brushing teeth twice a day using a drop of fluoride toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice). Your child should be supervised while brushing teeth until you can trust that he or she will not swallow the toothpaste.

Do not clean anything that will go in your child’s mouth using your saliva. When a pacifier or spoon falls to the ground, it can be tempting to take one for the team and clean it with your mouth. However, this is discouraged since an adult mouth has bacteria that a baby’s mouth does not.

Treating Tooth Decay

Tooth decay is not reversible; however, measures can be taken to eliminate the symptoms. A dental professional can fill small cavities, apply caps for bigger indentations or remove the tooth.