Tooth decay is a major oral health problem in children. It is caused by several factors, including feeding habits, food intake, cleaning methods and tooth structure. However it is caused, tooth decay leads to ongoing problems. This article provides you with all the information you need to know about tooth decay so that you can promote dental health for your children of any age.
Breast milk or infant formula is a baby’s main source of nutrition. Milk does not cause tooth decay (except sweetened milk), but tooth decay at this age is caused from:
The above factors can cause tooth decay over a period of time (in accordance with the order of tooth growth). Tooth decay affects a baby’s overall health. It can cause pain, swelling and infection. This causes the baby to lose his/her appetite which results in nutritional deficiencies that hinder physical and cognitive development. More importantly, the baby may be scared of going to the dentist at a very young age.
White spots on the teeth (that cannot be removed) may be an early sign of tooth decay. These white spots are caused by bacterial plaque that forms on the teeth. If left untreated without proper cleaning, the white spots will become pitted and turn brown, black or yellow. However, brushing the teeth with fluoride toothpaste will make the enamel harder and more resistant to decay.
You should take your baby to the dentist for the first time when the first tooth comes or during the first year of age so as to seek appropriate advice about dental and oral care. It’s never too late for the dentist to fix tooth decay. However, you should aim to prevent decay from developing in the first place by caring for your baby’s teeth as follows:
Children between 1-3 years generally refuse to have their teeth brushed. However, you can teach your child to clean his/her teeth with the following techniques:
Choose foods for healthy teeth, including foods high in protein, vitamins, and fiber such as carrots or sandwiches.
Restrict the intake of sugars and starches in each meal because they cause tooth decay. For example, a child may be allowed to have ice-cream within 20 minutes after a main meal, but then after that, should drink some water to rinse the mouth.
Toddlers should be given 3 main meals a day, like adults. They can now eat a variety of foods and will begin to decide which foods look inviting. Sometimes, he/she may continue to drink from a bottle and have a bottle at bedtime, which is a cause of tooth decay among children in this age group. Tooth decay can lead to premature loss of baby teeth and cause the following problems:
It is important for children to stop drinking from a bottle and having a bottle at bedtime as soon as possible. You should try to break your baby’s bottle habit during the first year of age.
The longer you keep giving your baby a bedtime bottle, the harder it seems to break the bottle habit. You can do it gradually, or you can make your baby go cold turkey. However, breaking the bottle habit should be done on non-working days because the crying may last for hours. To save you and your toddler from tears, remember that a baby who is ready to sit up is ready to drink from a cup.
Falling and hitting a baby’s tooth can make the tooth become loose, causing chewing problems. If a tooth is badly broken, it must be removed and may affect the development of adult teeth. This is because injuries to baby teeth can cause damage to the adult teeth that are forming in the jaws. The possible damage includes discolored teeth (white or brown), rough teeth, and misshapen teeth such as curved front teeth. However, the level of damage depends on the severity of the initial injury.
Sucking a thumb or fingers can affect development of occlusion by putting pressure against the front teeth and causing them to protrude. This is common during the first year of age and children generally quit sucking their thumbs at about 2-4 years. If they quit sucking before the age of 4 years, the buck teeth will only be temporary. However, if the sucking continues after the age of 4 years, the buck teeth will be permanent. Therefore, you should take your child to seek appropriate advice from a doctor if your child’s sucking habit continues after 4 years of age.
You can start to see the development of your child’s dental structure at this age. Children have 20 primary teeth and molar teeth will be moving closer together. At about the age of 6 years, the first permanent teeth erupt. Usually, the lower front incisors (as with the primary teeth) or the molar teeth will erupt first. The lower front permanent incisors develop below and towards the tongue side of the primary teeth (coming in overlapping while the primary teeth are still there). The tongue will then push the permanent tooth forward into position. In cases where the permanent tooth erupts half way or fully but the primary tooth does not fall out as expected, or if a child loses his/her appetite and cannot brush his/her teeth due to pain, the dentist can help to remove the tooth.
At about the age of 6 years, the first molar tooth erupts by pushing through the gum. Some parents mistakenly believe that these are primary teeth and will later be replaced by permanent teeth as with other primary teeth, but there is only set of permanent teeth for the molars. Approximately 80% of cavities occur there where brushing is difficult. For children in this age group, the parents should be involved in brushing and flossing between their teeth. The children should get sealants on their permanent molars as soon as these teeth come in.
The First Class Honours D.D.S., Faculty Dentistry, Chulalongkorn University, 2004.