Preventing tooth decay in young children

Tooth decay , called dental caries, is caused by bacteria eating away the outer protective layer (enamel) of a tooth. Help prevent tooth decay in young children by adopting the following healthy habits:

  • Take good care of your own teeth and gums. Saliva contains bacteria that cause tooth decay. Keep your own teeth and mouth healthy so you are less likely to transfer these bacteria to your baby. Avoid sharing spoons and other utensils with your baby. Also, don't "clean" your baby's pacifier with your mouth.
  • Prevent prolonged contact with sugars in formula and breast milk. Remove a bottle from your baby's mouth before he or she falls asleep. This practice helps prevent mouth bacteria from producing acids that cause baby bottle tooth decay. Also, clean your baby's teeth after feeding, especially at night. If you give your baby juice, limit the amount to 4 fl oz (118 mL) a day. Buy 100% real juice, and offer it only with meals.
  • Introduce cups for drinking beverages at age 12 months or earlier. By this age, frequent bottle-feedings, especially with juice or other high-sugar liquids, make a child more likely to develop tooth decay. If you are having trouble weaning your baby from a bottle, dilute the liquid with water to make it less tasty. At night, you could fill the bottle with plain water. During the day, offer an empty cup for your child to play with. For more information, see the topic Weaning.
  • Provide your older baby or toddler with a healthy diet. Give your child nutritious foods, and combine them in ways that help reduce the risk for tooth decay. For example, offer meals that include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Mozzarella and other cheeses, yogurt, and milk are good for teeth and make great after-meal snacks. They help clear the mouth of harmful sugars and protect against plaque. Make an effort to rinse or brush your child's teeth after he or she eats high-sugar foods, especially sticky, sweet foods like raisins.

Most city public water supplies contain safe levels of natural or added fluoride, which helps prevent tooth decay before and after primary teeth erupt. If you are unsure about the fluoride levels in your drinking water, talk to your doctor or dentist. Fluoride supplements are sometimes recommended but must be used with caution. Excessive amounts of fluoride can stain children's teeth and may be toxic. Also, it is important to use caution with fluoride toothpaste or mouthwash for your child's dental care until your child's ability to control swallowing is well developed.

As soon as your child's teeth come in, start cleaning them with a soft cloth or gauze pad. Start using a toothbrush when your child is 1 year old. And check with your doctor or dentist about when your child can use fluoride toothpaste.

Last Updated: July 13, 2009

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