What is baby bottle tooth decay?

Infant with bottle in mother's arms
Thinking about oral health when your children are young is a great way to set them up for years of healthy smiles!

When a baby is fussy and needs to be soothed, a caregiver’s first inclination is usually to reach for a bottle or a pacifier, perhaps dipped in something like honey or syrup. This is a common practice as it provides almost instant relief and can lull a baby to sleep quickly.

However, it may surprise you to learn that there is something called “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay.” Many parents are bewildered when they discover that their child has developed this condition. The typical cause is prolonged exposure to sugar found in liquids such as milk, formula, and juice.

You may be asking, “How is that possible if my baby doesn’t even have any teeth yet?” Plaque can grow even in gums, where milk and formula can sit for hours, particularly if the child has had the drink right before bed, or even worse, fallen asleep with the bottle in their mouths.

If your child does have all of their baby teeth, you might be tempted to think that since they are temporary, they are not as important. In reality, baby teeth play a critical role in your child’s oral development! They cannot learn how to chew or speak properly without their baby teeth functioning as they should. Also, if these teeth are not taken care of, their adult teeth may not come in properly.

Causes of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

So what are the most common causes for this type of decay? The list can include:

  • Allowing a baby to suck on a milk or formula-filled bottle for long periods of time
  • Dipping a pacifier in a sugary substance
  • Breastfeeding often and for prolonged periods of time
  • Passing bacteria through saliva from the caregiver to the baby (sharing spoons, etc.)
  • Using water that does not contain fluoride for your baby’s drinks

Some of these causes are often completely unavoidable. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prevent this condition.

How to Prevent Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

This disease is completely preventable if the right steps are taken.  Make sure to do the following as often as possible:

  • Wipe your baby’s gums and teeth after they are exposed to a liquid containing sugar
  • Minimize the amount of sugary foods in your child’s diet
  • Use only water in your child’s bottle if it’s for soothing purposes
  • Reduce the amount of acidic drinks and foods in your child’s diet
  • Use a small dab of fluoridated toothpaste when brushing your baby’s teeth

The main point to focus on is limiting the contact that your child’s teeth and gums have with any liquid that may increase the amount of bacteria in their mouth. This will look different for every child and caretaker, but the goal is the same. Do not let anything sit in their mouths for long periods of time, particularly at nighttime, because saliva production greatly decreases while we sleep.

If you’re worried about this condition, we can examine their teeth and determine whether there are any signs of this type of decay starting. Great oral health can begin even in infancy, setting a child up for success for years to come!