Tooth decay isn’t only a problem for adults. An estimated 42% of children aged 2 to 11 develop a cavity in their primary teeth, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Nearly 28% of children from 2-5 years old develop at least one cavity.

If you find yourself in this boat as a parent, you’re not alone.

Causes of Tooth Decay in Toddlers

Tooth decay occurs when bacteria in the mouth start to eat away at the primary teeth. It causes cavities and other issues like periodontal disease.

Poor oral hygiene is where this problem often begins. Parents of young children are responsible for managing their oral hygiene routine, and while we start teaching older toddlers how to brush their own teeth, they’re not very skilled at it. Young children often want to do things themselves and some even attempt to fight parents who try to brush their teeth for them. This sets children up for a host of tooth related problems.

Diet is also an important consideration, even where toddlers are concerned. Bad habits like sending them to bed with a bottle or a sippy cup with anything but water leave plenty of time for the sugars from milk or juice to sit in their mouth all night causing damage to their teeth.

Unhealthy eating habits contribute as well. Children love candy and sugary treats, and sugar feeds the bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay and gingivitis. Combined with inadequate oral hygiene, this is a recipe for problems.

Prevention and Treatment

If you’re going to give your child a bottle or sippy cup before bed, always choose water.  The AAPD recommends that when giving your child milk or juice, make sure it’s in an environment where they’re drinking it quickly instead of sipping on it, exposing their teeth and gums to new sugars for an hour or more. The less fresh sugars and starches their mouth is exposed to, the less fuel harmful bacteria will have to cause damage between brushings.

Brush and floss your child’s teeth daily and teach them how to do so. Though you have to avoid fluoride toothpaste tor the first two years, until your child is capable of spitting the toothpaste out instead of swallowing it, that doesn’t mean you can’t work with your child to develop proper tooth brushing habits. Teeth should be brushed for 2 minutes besides flossing or other treatments recommended by your child’s dentist.

Your child should see the dentist for the first time around or before their first birthday, according to the AADP. This will help you establish a good oral hygiene routine for them and spot any problem areas before damage has much chance to take hold.

If your child does develop a cavity, he will require dental work. Fillings can be used to correct smaller cavities, though a full crown might be needed if the damage is extensive. Fixing the cavities keeps the bacteria from spreading. Occasionally, if the damage is extensive enough, the tooth might have to be extracted because they can cause the adult teeth to develop abnormally.

Pitting or staining in adult teeth can occur if primary (baby) teeth aren’t properly cared for.

As a parent, you are in a unique position to set your child’s oral hygiene routine for life. Even though the teeth they’re taking care of are temporary, lack of understanding of the importance of proper oral health can set them up for complications both now and in the future. With proper attention and care, you can set your child up with good habits that will protect them for the rest of their lives.