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The ‘Soft Teeth’ Myth

You Can’t Blame Genes for Tooth Decay in Kids

If you think that "soft teeth" are the reason that cavities tend to run in families, you'll be surprised to know the real reason: an infection.

The infection is usually transmitted from mothers to babies during the first year of life.

"Women of childbearing age who have cavities or have had a lot of fillings are at the greatest risk to infect their newborns with cavity producing bacteria," says Dr. Peter Domoto, chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. "These bacteria live on sugar that is part of the baby's diet and deposit acid against the child's tooth surfaces."

Tooth decay doesn't have to be a part of your child's life. Following proper steps to improve your oral health, cleaning your baby's teeth, and making a thoughtful approach to infant and toddler feeding can reduce your child's risk for tooth decay.

"Children shouldn't have to suffer with painful teeth," says Dr. Domoto. "Baby bottle tooth decay or early childhood caries [cavities], as it is now known, is a serious public health problem that is totally preventable."

Children as young as nine or 10 months of age can be infected with cavity-producing bacteria. If left untreated, these tooth infections can lead to pain and expensive dental treatment.

What you can do

Dr. Domoto explains that there are some important steps parents can take in order to prevent early childhood caries.

  • Mothers should reduce their own oral bacterial infection through dental care and effective oral home care during prenatal and postnatal periods.

  • Usually by age 3 to 4 months, babies do not require sleep-time feeding. You should avoid leaving a bottle in the crib and excessive nighttime bottle or breastfeeding.

  • Try comforting the child with a pacifier or favorite toy or blanket instead of using the bottle or breast as a pacifier.

  • Clean a child's teeth as soon as they erupt. Parents should use a damp cloth or a toothbrush to clean these teeth.

  • Even after a child is able to hold a toothbrush and go through the motions of cleaning, continue to help with brushing. "Cleaning a child's teeth remains the parents' responsibility into the preschool years," explains Dr. Domoto. "This is the only way to ensure that teeth are being cleaned thoroughly."

Other healthy tips

  • When cleaning, parents should be sure to check their baby's teeth regularly for any chalky white or brown spots that could be the beginning of decay. Dr. Domoto stresses that parents should not hesitate to bring their children to the family dentist or pediatric dentist if they suspect a dental problem.

  • A child's first visit to the dentist should be made by the first birthday, or six months after the first tooth erupts, whichever comes first. "Starting off with good dental habits can help a child have a lifetime of healthy smiles," says Dr. Domoto.