As a parent, you want to raise a healthy child that is healthy. That should include establishing a strong foundation of oral and dental health and preventing tooth decay in your kids.
I was fortunate enough to raise three cavity-free daughters, and while you may think that being a dentist gave me an unfair advantage, that’s not the case at all. Once you know how cavities form, as well as the specific cause of cavities in babies, toddlers, and big kids, you can take a proactive approach and prevent cavity development in your own kids.
Since tooth decay can happen to any exposed tooth—even if it’s just poked through—babies as young as six months can get cavities. It’s shocking but true. And because I know you don’t want that to happen to your child, this article will provide all the information you need to understand the causes and prevention of tooth decay in kids.
How do Cavities Form?
When you eat sugary foods, processed carbs, or any other food that turns to sugar once consumed, naturally-occurring bacteria in your mouth feed on these sugars. They then form bacteria clusters, protected by a layer of plaque, that excrete highly acidic waste onto the teeth. This acid then destroys tooth enamel, causing cavities.
Cavity formation is not an instant or guaranteed process. Aside from the foods that fuel bacteria growth, there are several other factors that must align before a cavity can develop. The condition of the oral microbiome (which refers to the balance of good-to-bad bacteria in the mouth), the mouth’s pH (bad, cavity-causing bacteria love acidic conditions), and the quality of the saliva all contribute to cavities.
However, when the microbiome is balanced and you are eating the proper foods, taking the proper supplements, and avoiding or limiting acidic foods and drinks, you can prevent new cavities from ever forming. In fact, you can also naturally reverse smaller, existing cavities—no fillings needed.
But if harmful bacteria are given the ideal environment to flourish, cavities are essentially a foregone conclusion. The acids excreted by the bacteria will eat away at your teeth and, over time, expose nerves in the teeth, causing the pain and sensitivity to hot and cold that we often associate with cavities.
This is process is applicable to kids as well, so if you want to keep your child’s smile healthy and bright, it’s important to be aware of the conditions that cause cavities and do everything possible to prevent them.
Common Causes of Tooth Decay in Babies and Toddlers
I recommend that parents bring their children into the dentist at around 6 months, which is typically when their first teeth are appearing.
This may seem really early, but I suggest this approach because, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for very young children to have cavities. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 27 percent of children 2 to 5 have untreated tooth decay. 
Here are a few of the most common causes of tooth decay in babies and toddlers:
Not brushing or wiping baby teeth
As soon as baby’s first teeth appear, you should be keeping them clean in order to prevent the formation of plaque, which can lead to decay. Before your child has a full set of teeth that requires the use of a toothbrush, you can simply wipe them with a wet washcloth. For babies, you want to wipe teeth after every feeding, as formula, and even breastmilk, tends to have a high sugar content.
Giving too many sugary drinks
As I mentioned, even breastmilk is considered sugary—and so is any other drink that’s not water. When baby is young and relying on breastmilk or formula for sustenance, it’s impossible to avoid these drinks altogether. Again, this is why I recommend being vigilant about wiping baby’s teeth after feedings.
But once the child is old enough to eat solid foods, I suggest limiting or eliminating sugary drinks altogether, including juice. Along with sugary and starchy foods, these drinks are the preferred diet of erosion-causing bacteria.
Skipping the dentist
Waiting until your child has a full set of teeth (or longer) to see the dentist can delay the development of good dental habits, while also preventing early detection of any plaque buildup. The longer plaque goes unnoticed and isn’t professionally removed, the higher the likelihood it will lead to decay.
(Additionally, waiting too long before your child’s first dental visit—or waiting too long between subsequent appointments—can trigger dental anxiety at his next visit.)
Putting children to bed with a bottle
Giving your child a bottle or sippy cup at night may help soothe him to sleep, but it can also cause major damage to his teeth. Bottles and sippy cups deposit sugars from formula, juice, and other drinks directly onto the teeth. And when that contact is prolonged while baby sleeps, it is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and baby bottle tooth decay.
If you give your child a bottle or cup before bed, be sure to take away and clean his teeth before he falls asleep.
Tips for Preventing Tooth Decay in Babies and Toddlers
Now that we know the common causes of cavities in babies and toddlers, let’s take a look at some tips for prevention:
- Gently wipe down your baby’s teeth and gums with a wet washcloth after bottle- or breastfeeding
- Give your baby or toddler a few sips of water after eating or drinking to further wash away any lingering sugars in the mouth
- To prevent prolonged contact of sugar on teeth, never send babies and toddlers to bed with a bottle or sippy cup
- Find a pediatric dentist you like and trust, and take your child to his first dental appointment between six months and a year of age, or whenever his first tooth appears
- For toddlers, make sure finger foods and meals are rich in vitamin K2, vitamin D, and the other nutrients that support dental health. Avoid processed and sugary treats, as well as too many grains and legumes, which contain phytic acid and can lead to decay.
- Teach your toddler good dental hygiene habits, choosing a toothbrush designed specially for kids and helping him brush to ensure that each tooth is properly cleaned
Common Causes of Tooth Decay in Big Kids
As children grow past the baby and toddler phase, it’s still important to be vigilant about maintaining the health of their teeth, even as the causes of tooth decay began to change. Let’s take a look:
Too many high-sugar and high-carb snacks
Kids are full of energy, which means they need to refuel often. Unfortunately, they often turn to the high-sugar and high-carb foods that oral bacteria thrive on, which ultimately leads to more decay.
Poor overall diet
Teeth are designed to constantly rebuild and recover from any decay. But it’s important to be aware of the foods to eat—and the foods to avoid—to heal cavities naturally, as proper diet is the most important factor in the remineralization process.
I recommend—and personally eat—a Paleo diet that is comprised of vegetables, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meats. This diet provides the minerals and nutrients that support remineralization while being free of the harmful foods that can make it impossible to heal cavities and prevent them from forming.
You may be surprised to know that it’s not just candy that’s a problem in kids’ diets. Crackers, pastas, breads, and even dried fruits like raisins all contain the easy-to-eat carbohydrates and sugars that cavity-causing bacteria love to eat. Even beans can contribute to cavities because they contain phytic acid, which is known to prohibit the absorption of certain nutrients and minerals (including magnesium and calcium) that teeth need in order to remineralize.
Poor brushing and flossing habits
In the grand scheme of dental health, brushing and flossing ranks much lower than proper diet in order of importance. That may be good news for kids who aren’t brushing and flossing as often as they should—but who are still eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones).
Kids are kids, though, and no one’s diet is perfect. So in that case, it’s very important that kids develop proper dental hygiene habits from an early age.
Skipping the dentist’s office
As important as it is to start taking your child to the dentist early, t’s also important to keep regular appointments to make dental visits an expected, enjoyable experience. Skipping the dentist decreases the opportunities to catch plaque before it turns into something more serious and may also cause your child to dread going in the future.
Tips for Preventing Tooth Decay in Big Kids
- Skip the cookies and crackers and offer kids snacks made with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats to help them get the vitamins and minerals they need for a healthy mouth that can heal and prevent cavities.
- Encourage kids to rinse their mouths with water after eating to help eliminate some of the food and sugar debris that bacteria feed on. (But avoid brushing until 30 minutes after eating, as the enamel may be more susceptible to erosion immediately after consuming highly acidic or processed foods.)
- Consider kid-specific supplements, including vitamin K2 vitamin D, and oral probiotics.
- Teach kids good oral hygiene habits, including flossing and proper brushing technique. This involves gently wiggling the toothbrush around the teeth, rather than using a hard, see-saw motion against the teeth and gums.
I recommend that parents brush their child’s teeth until he is mature and skilled enough to do it on his own—or at least until age 7. Try brushing your teeth in front of your kids to set a good example. You can make it a family activity that everyone participates in together by setting a timer and keeping the experience positive.
- Try this recipe DIY kids toothpaste, since many toothpastes and mouthwashes for kids contain questionable ingredients like triclosan, sodium lauryl sulfate, artificial colorings, fluoride, titanium dioxide, glycerin, and abrasive ingredients. These ingredients can disrupt the mouth’s microbiome or be too harsh on teeth, which can contribute to tooth decay in kids.
- Make sure your kids are sleeping well. If your kids are snoring, grinding their teeth, or even sleeping with their mouth open, it could be affecting their oral health.
When the mouth is left open during sleep, it starts to dry out, which throws off the balance of oral microbiome, allowing bad bacteria to proliferate. This type of sleep also tends to be less restful than close-mouthed sleep, and we all know how critical a good night’s sleep is. Consider mouth taping for older kids, which force nose breathing and helps keep moisture in the mouth.
- Visit the dentist regularly, typically every six months. A dentist can help keep any plaque buildup under control and make sure your child’s mouth stays healthy for years to come.
Final thoughts on preventing tooth decay in kids
Many parents think that tooth decay in baby teeth isn’t a problem, as those teeth are going to fall out anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The truth is, decayed baby teeth can impact the development of adult teeth and impact your child’s oral health for years to come.
If your child develops cavities and grows accustomed to painful teeth, he might be hesitant to chew or otherwise use his mouth appropriately, which could lead to facial development issues. And if a dentist has to remove badly decayed baby teeth, it can affect cause the other baby teeth to shift to fill the empty space and may impact how the adult teeth grow in.
Luckily, cavities in kids can be prevented with the right diet, habits, lifestyle factors, and habits, and it’s important to establish them early. Creating good routines, taking the time to care for children’s teeth before they can do it themselves, scheduling a routine visit with your children’s dentist and focusing on a nourishing diet can make a huge difference in preventing tooth decay in kids. Your child’s smile is precious. It’s important to keep it healthy, too.