What causes tooth decay in kids?


It’s the news that no parent ever wants to hear from their child’s dentist: we found a cavity.

Also known as tooth decay, cavities are one of the most common dental problems in toddlers, children, and teens. Even infants can get them! And despite popular belief, tooth decay on baby teeth can have an impact on your child’s dental health for years, long after they fall out.

Keep reading to learn what causes tooth decay in kids, how to prevent it, and how the pediatric specialists at Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry can help.

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay or cavities are permanently damaged areas in the hard surface of your child’s teeth that become tiny holes or openings. Anyone who has teeth can get tooth decay.

Tooth decay occurs when the natural sugars in drinks and food we consume are changed into acid by the bacteria that is already present in our mouths. This acid dissolves the outer part of our teeth, causing them to decay.

For kids and adults alike, regular dental visits and good oral hygiene are the best protection against developing tooth decay. Tooth decay happens most frequently in the back teeth, which have lots of nooks and crannies that can collect food particles and are harder to clean.

What causes tooth decay in infants?

Baby teeth are tiny but important–if one is lost too early, other baby teeth may move and not leave enough room for adult teeth to come in.

Tooth decay might first appear as white spots on your baby’s gum line, just above their upper front teeth. These spots can be difficult to see without proper equipment –an excellent reason to bring your child to Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry for their first visit at age one, as recommended.

The most common cause of tooth decay in infants is putting them to bed with a bottle of formula, milk, juice, soda, or any other sugary drink. Unless it is mealtime, you should never give them anything but water to drink from their bottle during the day or at night.

Parents can also pass the bacteria that causes tooth decay to their baby through their own saliva – for example, by cleaning their baby’s pacifier in their mouth or testing food on their baby’s spoon before using it.

Remember: even if your baby doesn’t have teeth yet, their mouth still has germs. Wipe their gums with a soft washcloth after each feeding. Once teeth are present, gently brush their teeth twice a day with a pea-size amount of toothpaste to prevent tooth decay.

What causes tooth decay in kids?

Tooth decay often develops when toddlers and children don’t properly brush their teeth. Your child should brush for at least two minutes, twice a day. Keep in mind that children usually cannot brush well by themselves until they are at least six years old–your Smiles in Motion pediatric dentist will teach you and your child the proper technique for your child’s age, so you can supervise their brushing until they’re old enough to do it right.

Some children also floss their teeth incorrectly, or not at all. Parents, you’ll need to step in to help with this as well. Cavities can easily develop when food particles are left between your child’s teeth.

Diet also plays a huge role in causing tooth decay in kids. Your child has a much higher risk if they eat a lot of sugary or starchy foods that are high in carbohydrates and tend to cling to teeth, such as:

  • Ice cream
  • Cake
  • Cookies
  • Candy
  • Potato chips
  • Crackers
  • Sugary cereal

The same goes for sugary drinks. When your child sips soda, juice, or other acidic drinks throughout the day, it helps create a continual acid bath over their teeth – and you can guess what comes next. Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry recommends limiting all sugary drinks and making sure that your child brushes and flosses well whenever they consume them.

What are the consequences of tooth decay?

Because tooth decay doesn’t always cause pain (at least at first), recognizing that your child has a cavity can be difficult. In the beginning, your child may have no symptoms at all. But as tooth decay grows, they may experience:

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Mouth swelling
  • Pain when biting
  • Pain when eating or drinking something hot or cold
  • Holes in their teeth
  • White spots or dark spots on their teeth

Left untreated, tooth decay will get worse and can affect deeper layers of your child’s teeth–eventually leading to severe pain, difficulty eating or chewing, damaged or broken teeth, or tooth loss.

In rare cases, a tooth abscess (a pocket of pus caused by bacterial infection) can form and even become life-threatening.

What should you do if you expect tooth decay?

That’s easy–bring your child to Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry for an appointment! Every time you visit Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry, we’ll thoroughly examine your child’s mouth for any signs of tooth decay and professionally clean your child’s teeth.

Despite the name, most children still have some “baby” teeth until age 12-13. If your child’s baby teeth have serious decay, their permanent teeth can be damaged before they even begin to surface, making it extremely important to bring your child in every six months for their dental checkup and cleanings. Of course, we want to take good care of their permanent teeth as well.

Early prevention is key, and our pediatric dentists are here to help keep your child’s teeth as clean and healthy as possible.

How does Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry treat tooth decay?

If we discover tooth decay at your child’s visit, all of your treatment options will be discussed with you in detail. These include:

  • Dental fillings – White fillings are an effective treatment for small to moderate-sized cavities on 1-2 surfaces of the tooth. At Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry, we only use BPA-free filling materials.
  • Dental crowns – If your child’s tooth is severely decayed or at high risk of developing a second cavity, a dental crown may be required. Crowns help cover, strengthen, and protect the remaining tooth from any further damage.
  • Baby root canals – Deep cavities can extend into the nerve of your child’s tooth. Baby root canals (also known as nerve treatments) help prevent pain and lower the risk of infection.
  • Tooth extractions – If your child’s tooth is beyond repair, our pediatric dentists can remove it safely.

Got tooth decay? Don’t delay!

When it comes to tooth decay in kids, time is of the essence–and your child’s smile is too important to wait. To learn more about preventing and treating tooth decay, schedule an appointment with Smiles in Motion Pediatric Dentistry today. Our pediatric specialists help kids of all ages, starting at age one.