Pediatric dentist Rachel Maher is still amazed by the amount of decay she sees in her young patients. “I see several 5-year-olds a day with 10 to 15 cavities,” she says. Even 18-month-olds with new teeth suffer decay and, sometimes, periodontal disease. Says pediatric specialist Richard M. Quinn, “Decay is as prevalent as ever, especially in early childhood. I see more than I thought I would at this stage of my career”—and he’s been practicing for 40 years.
The main culprit is sugar, the fuel that naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth uses to make destructive acids. And that sugar is everywhere. “I think sugar is an addiction,” Quinn says, and there is much supporting research on his side. “Before you finish your M&Ms, you’re thinking about the next mouthful.”
He and Maher point to such sources as fruit juices, sugary cereal, cookies, candy and soda. Even chewable children’s vitamins have sugar. Chewy, gummy candy is especially destructive. Quinn often sees 15-year-olds with previously healthy teeth suddenly develop cavities, a sure sign of energy drink consumption. Asthma inhalers can do some damage, Maher says. Even the lactic acid in mother’s milk can decay teeth, according to Quinn.
Further, bad bacteria can be transmitted from parent to child by such simple acts as cleaning a pacifier in her mouth before giving it to a baby, Maher says (which isn’t cleaning at all). Bacteria can also be passed from child to child by sharing slobbery toys.
The best cure is prevention. Parents play the critical role—“dental hygiene runs in families,” Maher says—so they need to educate themselves about proper mouth care and diet. Plan to visit the dentist as soon as a child’s teeth erupt. Start regular checkups at 2- or 3-years-old. Learn how to take care of your mouth, model that behavior, then show your child. That means brushing and—you guessed it—flossing, which should begin as soon as a child’s teeth begin to touch each other.
“Flossing is a hard habit to develop, Quinn says. “I was well into dental school when I started doing it every day. But every good habit is hard to develop. It’s a matter of being consistent. The child will ultimately accept it. I tell kids they only have to floss until they’re 95. That’s it.”
Maher recommends visiting a board-certified pediatric dentist. They’re specially trained in growth and development, and they know how to handle difficult patients—and difficult parents.
And remember, “Shiny white teeth can still have cavities,” Maher says.