What your toddler drinks is just as important as what they eat when it comes to their dental health.
As pediatric dentists, we know how critical it is to teach children healthy dental habits from as young an age as possible. Time and again, we’ve seen patients as young as toddlers come in crying with a terrible toothache and an even worse cavity. Tooth decay is one of the most common childhood diseases. It’s estimated that nearly 28% of all children two to five years old have had at least one decayed tooth, with 20% having theirs still untreated. While dental hygiene habits, of course, play a large part in this, your child’s diet is just as critical to their oral health.
Many parents focus their efforts on the foods their young ones eat. They keep their kids' hands out of the cookie jar as much as possible and encourage them to eat teeth-cleaning apples and carrots instead. While these are excellent choices and can significantly impact a toddler's smile, there's a secret villain that parents often forget: their child's drinks. Popular drinks like sodas and fruit juices are both sugary and acidic, which can be a killer combination on their baby teeth.
Sugar and Tooth Decay
It's easy to understand why acids in a child's drink can be so bad for teeth, but why is sugar just as dangerous? Sugar attracts certain oral bacteria that can form dental plaque once they come in contact with our saliva. As plaque forms a thick film over your toddler's baby teeth, it starts attacking them, beginning with the hard surface enamel. Teeth are made of three main layers:
Enamel: the hard outer surface that protects the inner tooth from damage and dental decay
Dentin: the middle layer that is softer and helps support the enamel
Dental pulp: the central layer filled with blood vessels and nerves, extending down the roots to the tooth’s tip
In the first stage of tooth decay, it begins by stripping the enamel of crucial minerals like calcium and lowering the tooth's defenses. Once the tooth is weak enough, bacteria can eat its way through the enamel to reach the softer, more vulnerable layers below. As the cavity burrows deeper and reaches the pulp, it moves its way down the roots.
Without treatment, decay won't stop trying to destroy the critical blood vessels and tissues keeping the tooth healthy. The infection can fester at the tooth's tip, creating a pocket of pus called a tooth abscess. Abscesses are no joking matter. If a pediatric dentist doesn’t drain in time, they can burst as bacteria and infection rapidly poison the surrounding areas. At its worst, a cavity may kill the tooth.
Are Baby Teeth More Prone To Cavities?
While it might seem strange since they’re so young and new, baby teeth can develop cavities much faster than adult ones. Since baby teeth are only temporary, they don’t need to have as thick a layer of hard enamel as teeth meant to last you a lifetime. Once the tooth is demineralized, decay can quickly wear away through the enamel to reach the dentin and pulp layers.
We must also consider that toddlers are only just learning how to brush and floss their teeth on their own. Even if we try to make up for where they fall behind, poor oral hygiene can lead to dental plaque collecting on their smiles. When your toddler frequently drinks sodas, juices, and other sugary beverages, that plaque accumulates quickly and dangerously.
What Does A Cavity Look Like?
Tooth decay and cavities are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Decay is the dental disease itself, as bacteria and infection gradually attack and make their way through your tooth. A cavity is the physical hole that forms once decay breaks through the enamel to burrow into the layers below.
Before the cavity stage, decay can show itself during the initial demineralization process as white spots appear on the enamel. These spots can slowly darken as the bacteria continue working their way through the enamel. If your child has a lot of sugary drinks and foods, be on the lookout for these other dental decay warning signs:
Pain when biting down or chewing
Sharp sensitivity to hot and cold
Lingering sensitivity to sweets
How Do You Stop Tooth Decay From Spreading?
During the white spots stage, dental decay can be stopped and potentially reversed with excellent dental hygiene and topical fluoride treatment. It's important not to give your toddler too much fluoride, and make sure that they don't swallow any, as can happen with fluoride toothpastes. Children under age three should use no more than a smear on their toothbrush. However, kids between three and six years old can use a pea-sized amount.
Once a cavity forms, you can't reverse the damage done to your toddler's tooth. You will need to set up an appointment with their kids dentist and have their dental caries treated professionally with a filling, crown, or root canal.
Dental fillings are usually used to restore teeth that only have minor surface-level cavities. During this procedure, the decayed parts of the tooth are removed, and the tooth is smoothed down and disinfected. From there, we can fill in the gap left behind using composite resin. This liquid material is shaped and hardened to restore the baby tooth’s look and bite.
More extensive damage covering a wider surface area requires a dental crown. After the tooth decay is gone, the crown will cap the entire tooth rather than treat a specific area like a filling. With baby teeth, aesthetics and durability aren't as much of a concern as they would be with permanent ones. So unlike with adult patients, our children's dentist team doesn't rely on more standard porcelain, base metals, and gold. Instead, most children's tooth crowns are either:
Stainless steel: durable, affordable, and most common for back teeth
Composite strip: uses plastic molds to craft natural-looking teeth with composite bonding resin
Veneered steel: similar to stainless steel, except the crown’s surface is made with a dental veneer to make the crown both sturdy and aesthetic
Once the dental pulp layer is breached, our dentists will need to perform a root canal. As the pulp is especially sensitive, this specialized procedure allows our dentists to painlessly remove any dental decay within the inner tooth, down to its roots. This access deep into the heart of the tooth also enables us to drain any tooth abscesses that may have developed safely.
After we’ve cleaned the tooth, it will be filled with a rubbery material called gutta-percha and reinforced with either a filling or crown. This final restoration is crucial for your child’s tooth’s survival. Without strengthening its defenses, the baby tooth will be vulnerable to future bacteria, decay, and injury. At its worst, any further damage can cause the tooth to die, making tooth extraction* unwanted but necessary.
Should I Have My Child's Tooth Extracted?
If enough of the dental pulp is destroyed, your child’s tooth pain may suddenly disappear as the tooth begins to die. At this time, it becomes a race against the clock to save your toddler’s baby tooth. While root canals can often revive one on the brink of death, it’s not always possible. A dentist never wants to pull a tooth if we don’t have to, especially if they’re a pediatric dentist. However, sometimes dental decay forces our hand, and there is no other way to stop the infection and bacteria from spreading.
Many parents ask us if they can wait out the infection since the baby tooth will eventually remove itself on its own. Unless the tooth is on the verge of falling out, which it shouldn’t until your child is around six years old, you should never leave a badly decayed tooth alone. The infection won’t stay contained to the one tooth, and it will sprawl out to conquer the rest of your young one’s smile. Even the adult tooth waiting in the wings to emerge in the next few years can become decayed. A badly decayed, submerged tooth may mean we will have to remove your child’s permanent tooth before it ever has a chance to come in!
As nerve-wracking as tooth extraction might seem, the procedure itself is relatively simple. We will first use a local anesthetic to ensure your child doesn't feel a thing throughout the treatment. Our pediatric team will then use a dental elevator to wriggle the tooth back and forth, loosening it from the gums and connective tissues holding it tight. With enough wiggle room, we can quickly pull the tooth free without issue. While the local anesthetic may take 10 to 20 minutes to kick in, the extraction process only needs 3 to 15 minutes for each tooth.