What is baby bottle tooth decay?


In certain parts of the weird and wonderful body-building world, (human) breast milk is considered the ultimate supplement. It’s easier to digest than cow milk, so it doesn’t trigger lactose intolerance in adults. It’s richer in nutrients, and higher in protein. It also has a slightly sweet taste. So when mothers wean their kids from the breast to the bottle, if they’re not using formula, they might add a little sugar. They feel this is more palatable to their kids.

As kids get bigger and you’re trying to get them to sleep through the night, you might follow an old wives’ tale and ‘thicken’ their bottles. You might give them sugared milk, or add fruit juice and/or cereal to their bottles, widening the teat piercing to accommodate the thicker consistency. When they were infants, milk soothed the baby to sleep, but you may also have noticed they slept longer when they’re full.

That’s the idea behind ‘modified’ bottles. The cereal, sugar, juice, porridge, or additives contain more calories, so the sucking motion will lull the baby, and the full feeling will keep them asleep longer. Even when they’re awake, this higher-calorie baby bottles pacify them. Most babies give up their bottles before pre-school, so obesity isn’t something their carers are too worried about. Also, these infants have no teeth yet, so dental care isn’t an active concern. Even when their teeth do erupt, they’re milk teeth that will fall out from age 6. Here are some extra dental tips for parents to follow.

Look after their gums

Here’s the problem though – the state of your gums can affect the state of your teeth. So if babies are exposed to excess sugars, their teeth will be weakened when they finally come out. Also, although milk teeth will fall out, their rot can go beneath the visible surface. If your child has cavities on their milk teeth, it can extend into the gums and down to the root, so their permanent teeth can be damaged as well.

It’s why dentists advise infant carers to wipe their gums and their little baby teeth with clean water and gauze, even before they’re in a state to brush. The issue in the bottles isn’t just sugared milk though. It’s also sodas, juices, or any sweetened drink. If the baby falls asleep with the bottle in their mouth, then their teeth and gums are exposed to these sugars for prolonged periods, inviting further tooth decay.

Just like in adults, the process of tooth decay in babies isn’t what we’ve always thought. We assumed bacteria in the mouth cause our teeth to rot. And they do, but not in their natural state. The work of this bacteria is to disinfect our mouths, killing potentially harmful micro-organisms by secreting acid. These acids levels are calibrated by saliva, which has a partial digestive function, and which has alkaline content to counteract oral acid.

Breaks between bottles

However, in cases like baby bottle tooth decay, the child’s mouth is constantly bathed in simple sugars, so the bacteria are binge-ing. They produce excess acid, and that’s what rots the teeth. It’s all about excess. Plus, because the mouth is always busy and has no time to rest, the baby’s saliva has no time or space to circulate and wash away the excess acid, resulting in a continuous process of tooth rot.

It can be easy to give your child a bottle when you need them to stay calm, or when you’re sleep training, but it could set them up for a lifetime of bad teeth. If you must give your baby a bottle, fill it with sugarless milk, formula, or plain water. Flavoured water is as bad as juice, so avoid it. You could also give the baby a pacifier, but don’t dip it in honey or sugar. As your baby’s motor skills develop, transition them to a sippy cup. Its lip slips over the teeth, so it will expose their teeth and gums to less liquid. By their first birthday, sippy cups should replace bottles.

Your child will benefit from fluoride gels, which are a proven to minimise tooth decay. Take a small portion – the size of a pea or grain of rice – and rub it on your baby’s gums. Do this consistently until they’re about 3 years old, then you can start their brushing routine, still using minimal amounts of toothpaste. If you use too much, they’ll just swallow it. Also, create a bedtime / naptime routine that doesn’t revolve around bottles. You could sing a song, play a game, or read a story. Any bottles or cups should be emptied before they nestle down to rest. This helps to minimise bedwetting as well.

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