Young girl visiting the dentist.

What You Need to Know About Childhood Cavities

August 14, 2020

Did you know that more than 25% of children have at least one cavity by the age of 4? And according to the CDC, 1 in 5 children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one untreated decaying tooth. While these statistics make cavities and tooth decay the most common oral health issues for children in the country, you might be wondering, “Is there really much harm if baby teeth aren’t permanent?”

Unfortunately, if left untreated, childhood cavities can cause a number of other issues, both now and in the long term. These include pain and infection, difficulty eating, and irregular tooth development that can lead to misalignment, overbites, and speech problems.

But here’s the good news: by knowing the causes of cavities, practicing proper at-home care, and scheduling regular visits to the dentist, you can drastically reduce your child’s risk of developing a cavity.


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What Causes Cavities in Children?


Inadequate Brushing and Flossing

We’ve all heard about the importance of brushing twice and flossing at least once each day. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that caregivers first begin cleaning an infant’s gums with a soft infant toothbrush, a cloth and water, or a finger brush. Brushing should begin once the child’s first tooth appears while flossing should start as soon as they have two teeth that touch, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 years old.

These daily habits are especially important before bedtime to eliminate the bacteria that build up during the day.

Pro tip: It’s recommended that you oversee your child’s brushing and flossing until they reach around 10 years old and can demonstrate proper technique on their own.


Using the Wrong Amount or Type of Toothpaste

For infants without any teeth, using a soft-bristled infant toothbrush or finger brush, clean your baby’s gums using only water. For children under the age of 2 who have their first erupted tooth, the AAPD recommends a “smear” of toothpaste, roughly around the length of a grain of rice. This age group can either use a fluoride-free toothpaste, specifically made for children under two years old, or they can use a fluoride toothpaste.

A pea-sized amount is recommended for kids between the ages of 3 to 6 years old. The AAPD encourages the use of a fluoride toothpaste to strengthen enamel and inhibit the loss of minerals in the teeth, however, it is important to use the smallest suggested amount in order to ensure your child spits out the toothpaste and does not ingest it.

On the topic of fluoride, many counties have fluoride in their drinking water, whether it’s naturally occurring or manually added in, which has been shown to lower tooth decay rates by 25%, according to the ADA. If you live in an area where fluoride isn’t in the water, ask your dentist if fluoride supplements might be right for your child.


Too Many Sugary or Starchy Foods and Drinks

Diet plays a huge role in the health of your child’s smile -- bacteria feeds on the simple sugars and starches in sweet treats and other highly processed foods. Focus on feeding your children fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting snacks such as cookies, candy, soda, and chips.

If your child uses a bottle or sippy cup at bedtime, opt to fill it with water instead of sugary juice or formula.


Irregular Trips to the Dentist

It should come as no surprise that regular trips to the dentist are incredibly important for your child’s dental health. The first visit should come after the first tooth erupts, but no later than their first birthday. Regular follow up exam should be scheduled every 6 months. These preventative visits will help eliminate the buildup of plaque and tartar that lead to cavities and the need for extensive treatments later on.


Symptoms of Childhood Cavities


As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to stay on top of your child’s teeth so that if problems do arise, they can be addressed as early as possible. While signs of cavities may be different depending on the child, there are some common symptoms to look for:

  • Pain around the tooth and gums when eating or brushing;
  • A new or increased sensitivity to hot or cold food or drinks;
  • Consistent bad breath;
  • Visible white spots on the teeth;
  • Holes or discoloration (Cavities in their early stages will often appear as white spots, then become a light brown color as they progress. More serious cavities may turn a dark brown or even black);

If your child is showing any of the following, you should schedule a visit with their dentist as soon as possible.


Treatment Options for Your Child’s Baby Teeth


If your child does end up getting a cavity, your dentist will typically recommend what’s called a direct restoration. Done in a single visit to your dentist’s office, this involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and replacing it with a filling.

When decay is left untreated for an extensive amount of time, your child’s treatment might progress to require the need for a crown, root canal therapy, or even premature loss of primary tooth with an extraction.

When the permanent molar teeth begin to come in, your child’s dentist might recommend preventing cavities with the placement of sealants on the surface of the molars.

Sealants block bacteria from getting into the deep grooves that toothbrush bristles can’t reach, thereby helping to protect your child from cavities. It’s an easy and painless procedure that takes only a few minutes per tooth, can last for up to 10 years, and is covered for children under most Delta Dental® of Washington plans.

Remember that good dental hygiene takes a combination of proper at-home care, regular visits to the dentist, and addressing issues early. By instilling these habits in your child early, you can help them have a healthy and beautiful smile for a lifetime.



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