The Dental Series was created in collaboration with Bogobrush in an attempt to make dental health care not only important, but COOL, too! In it, we answer common questions and address current topics in the dental field. When Bogobrush is not helping spread the word about oral healthcare, they act as a source for ethically made, sustainable toothbrushes, with a one-for-one give-back program catering low-income communities that may not have access to something as simple as a toothbrush.
I sat down on Valentine’s Day to write a post. I wasn’t sure what to write about at the time, but the feeling of love was all around. Suddenly it dawned on me. I thought of kisses, specifically those that befall on children’s heads. Parents kissing their children on the lips, as if to say “I love you, and don’t you forget it”. I’ve seen it often, too, as a simple gesture signaling comfort. A mother kissing a child good luck in the waiting room, as the child is called into the back of the dental office for x-rays. A father kissing a child in tears, telling them to be brave and good, as he holds their hand during the first dental visit. I’ve seen a mother cooing a baby to sleep while her teenager gets a cleaning, and kissing her darling baby goodnight. I’ve seen it over and over again, the kiss, this symbol of love.
Then, I think to myself, “do people know?”
Babies Are Born Cavity Free
Do people know that babies are born cavity-free? This isn’t because they don’t have teeth, but rather, because all babies are born without the bacteria that causes cavities — Streptococcus mutans, if you want to address it by name. Like other bacterial infections, acquiring this bacteria requires exposure. In fact, the only way to have cavity-causing bacteria is through someone else’s saliva. And guess whose first on the list to expose babies to cavity-causing bacteria?
That’s right! The child’s immediate family is usually the first people to expose the little one to cavity-causing bacteria. My mind races with images of parents sharing their meals and feeding young children food from a mother or father’s plate, while the little ones swing their knees above floors they can’t yet reach. I think of the way we teach children how to drink from a glass, by demonstrating with our cups, and then asking them to mimic the motions. I think of ice cream cones shared on a summer day, peanut butter sandwiches with alternating bites. I have even seen parents chew their baby’s food for easier eating, then spitting it out and feeding it to them. That isn’t foreign to me at all. We’ve all seen pacifiers drop from a baby’s mouth or a baby’s hand. The next scene is familiar. Usually, the parent picks up the pacifier and rather than returning it to the baby dirty, they stick it in their mouth to clean it, before handing it back.
The truth of the matter is, parents share saliva with their babies all the time (as do brothers and sisters). But do parents know that this is how babies catch those cavity-causing bacteria early on?
It’s Nobody’s Fault
When I tell people that their one-year old has sugar bugs on their teeny tiny baby teeth, parents often look at me with shock. How could their precious baby have sugar bugs so early? What did they do wrong? When I follow it up by saying that their child probably caught it from someone at home, they look at me like I’ve just offended them. “You mean to tell me this is my fault?” they would say. No, I am not saying it is your fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It just happens. Just like someone with a cold can transfer it to another person in their surroundings, bacteria in your saliva just, well, transfers. So, what can we do to prevent it from transferring?
Preventing Baby Cavities
I think it would be highly impractical to tell all parents to refrain from kissing their kids on the lips all-together. In fact, I think some parents would have a melt-down, even though I know some dentists do tell them anyway. If we are being completely honest, that would definitely help prevent early cavity formation. But the other truth is, parents will still want a way to show their love. So if it’s impractical to suggest it, let’s talk about the alternatives.
- Limit the sharing of saliva among family members. The more you limit the sharing of saliva, the better you control the spread of cavity-causing bacteria. Refrain from sharing plates of food, cups, and drinks.
- Make sure everyone in the family has a healthy mouth. Visit the dentist and keep cavity-causing bacteria under control. Make sure that both parents are cavity-free, so that they have less cavity-causing bacteria to spread. The best thing a parent can do is address their own dental issues to protect their children. It’s important to have siblings ! And anyone else who gives that baby a kiss, or a bite of food to eat. (P.S.: This applies to adults as well. Making sure your significant other and all loved ones are on top of their dental game helps YOU, too.)
- Watch their diet. Diet plays a huge factor in cavity formation. Once children have cavity-producing bacteria, those bacterial species will be in search of sugary treats. Babies should be weaned off of sippy cups and bottles as soon as possible. We recommend not using a sippy cup later than one years old. Falling asleep with a bottle in hand and milk on teeth is no good on the dental front. Juice drinks are the worst, followed by sticky candies and sweet treats.
- Maintain good oral hygiene. A baby can catch the cavity-causing bacteria even before their teeth first make an appearance. It is during this stage that we must really be diligent about good oral hygiene. We don’t want cavities to form as the teeth are erupting. We want to make sure to brush any sticky and sugary foods and drink from the baby teeth. Maintaining good oral hygiene will help prevent cavities from forming, despite being in the presence of cavity-causing bacteria.