Answers for Parents from a Kids Dentist
Though they’ll eventually fall out, baby teeth are essential to your child’s immediate and long-term health, development, and self-esteem and should ideally be preserved until they’re ready to fall out naturally. Of course, life isn’t always ideal and cavities can happen—so what do you do if your child has a cavity? How are cavities treated in children? And how can you help your child prevent cavities in the first place?
Here are 10 of the top questions about kids’ cavities we hear from parents and our answers.
1. How common are cavities in baby teeth?
Five times more prevalent than asthma, dental caries (aka cavities) is the most common chronic disease of childhood. An estimated 42% of children aged two and 11 have had dental caries in their primary (baby) teeth. Early childhood caries, which encompasses cavities between birth and 71 months, affects 28% of children between two and five.
2. How do I know if my child has a cavity?
The symptoms of tooth decay can vary greatly from child to child. A cavity may be obvious to the naked eye or present no symptoms whatsoever. While the best way to know whether or not a cavity has developed is to schedule an appointment with an experienced pediatric dentist, here are a few common signs that a cavity has developed:
- White, brown, or black spots on the teeth. White spots may indicate that tooth enamel is breaking down, making your child’s teeth vulnerable to tooth decay or sensitivity. Light brown spots usually indicate an early cavity, while brown or black spots indicate that a cavity has formed already.
- Tooth sensitivity. If your child has enamel erosion or a cavity, they may experience temperature sensitivity or sensitivity to certain tastes, such as sour or sweet.
- Toothache or pain. A cavity may cause tooth pain or pain in the tissues that surround it.
3. Why does my child have a cavity?
Cavities form when harmful oral bacteria get the upper hand over your child’s mouth and teeth. As these oral bacteria feed (they especially love anything sugary), they produce an acid byproduct that weakens and breaks down tooth enamel, causing cavities. Baby teeth are especially susceptible to cavities, as they have a thinner layer of protective enamel than permanent (adult) teeth.
Certain factors, alone or combined, may increase your child’s risk for cavities, including:
- Saliva transmission. Another person’s saliva—even a parent’s—can overexpose your child to the acid-producing oral bacteria that causes cavities.
- Diet. As oral bacterias feed on carbohydrates, a diet high in sugars and starches may contribute to the formation of cavities. Additionally, sticky foods or those that dissolve slowly, like lollipops or hard candies, give oral bacteria more time to feed.
- Bedtime drinks. The risk of early childhood caries (also known as baby bottle tooth decay) increases when sweetened liquids are used as a naptime or bedtime drink, as salivation slows during sleep. Without saliva or brushing to remove sweetened liquids from your child’s teeth, oral bacteria have a longer amount of time to feed on leftover sugars on and around your child’s teeth.
- Dry mouth. Also known as xerostomia, dry mouth may be caused by multiple factors, including mouth breathing or dehydration.
- Oral hygiene habits. Your child may be at risk for cavities if they’re not brushing long enough or often enough, or if they’re not properly flossing.
4. Is it my fault my child has a cavity?
Many parents struggle when they find out they’re child has a cavity, though there’s no need to panic or be hard on yourself. Take heart and know that a cavity doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent or that you’ve necessarily done anything wrong. A cavity may still happen despite your best efforts to prevent them through healthy lifestyle choices and a consistent oral hygiene routine. If your child has a cavity, what matters most is that you seek guidance and appropriate treatment from a pediatric dentist, and carry on with your best and well-informed efforts to prevent cavities.
5. Can I make a cavity go away?
Watching our children go through an injury or illness is never easy. If only we really could wave a magic wand and make it all go away! Though you can’t make a cavity go away once it’s formed, there is a lot you can do to support your child’s oral health and general well-being before, during, and after cavity treatment (see #9 and #10 for tips).
6. Is my child’s cavity a dental emergency?
While you should have your child seen by a kids dentist as soon as possible if you suspect they have a cavity (see #2), a cavity does not warrant an emergency dental visit as long as they are pain free.
7. Is it necessary to fill cavities in baby teeth?
If cavities are left untreated, the infection can damage other teeth and even spread into your child’s face and body. In addition to potentially affecting the health and alignment of your child’s permanent teeth, an untreated cavity can eventually impact your child’s ability to concentrate at school and properly chew and speak.
Because the consequences of an untreated cavity can be so grave, your family dentist will most likely recommend a filling or crown to support your child’s health, comfort, learning, and well-being. In some cases, the pediatric dentist may choose to monitor the tooth instead (for example, your child has a minor cavity in a baby tooth that is likely to fall out soon). Along with addressing a cavity, your family dentist may also recommend preventative measures (such as a professional fluoride treatment), diet or lifestyle changes, and at-home care.
8. How do dentists fill cavities in toddlers and children?
Cavity treatment for toddlers and children is very similar to cavity treatment for adults. First, the pediatric dentist will ensure your child is comfortable with a local anesthetic, and, if needed, sedation techniques, such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Once your child is comfortable and relaxed, your dentist will remove the tooth decay from your child’s baby tooth and protect the remaining tooth structure with a filling or a pediatric dental crown.
9. How can I prepare my kid to have a cavity filling?
One of the best things you can do for your child is keep all talk of the pediatric dentist cool, calm, and positive. While you might be frustrated or disappointed that your child has a cavity, it’s important not to frame cavity treatment as punishment, such as “you didn’t brush your teeth enough, now you have to have your tooth filled.” Instead, you can try offering some basic information, such as “the dentist is going to remove a few sugar bugs from your teeth, then your smile will be so happy and healthy!”
If discovering your child has a cavity triggers your own feelings of dental anxiety, carve out time to process your feelings with another adult, such your partner, a therapist, or a trusted friend. By finding an appropriate and healthy outlet to process your feelings, you can spare your child from framing the pediatric dentist through a lens of fear, dislike, or anxiety.
10. How can I help my child prevent cavities?
Whether or not your child has had a cavity, there are several steps you can take to minimize their risk of getting cavities in their baby and adult teeth. Along with ensuring your child is properly brushing twice daily and flossing once daily, you can help your child prevent cavities by serving water over sugary drinks, trading sippy cups for regular cups, reducing sticky, sugary or acidic foods and treats, and visiting your pediatric dentist twice annually.
Dr. Shea and her team are dedicated to providing high quality dentistry for children to the greater Rocester and Chili, NY communities. To help your child experience the benefits great oral health brings, contact our office to schedule an appointment today.