Bottle rot: how to prevent baby tooth decay

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If you had to guess, what would you say if the most common long-term childhood health issue? Asthma? Allergies? Relentless viruses brought home from daycare? Surprisingly enough, it’s tooth decay.

Children’s tooth decay is about five times more common than childhood asthma. And babies and toddlers who fall asleep with a bottle are at risk of developing a particular type of tooth decay: bottle rot. 

While baby tooth decay may seem like less than a critical issue, bottle rot can lead to a myriad of oral health issues later on. Your child's baby teeth form the foundation of your child's mouth, holding the jaw in place for adult teeth. Healthy teeth mean healthy eating practices, and setting up good habits early on will follow a child for the rest of their life. 

Let's look at some of the long-term health implications of bottle rot, including the main causes and what parents can do to prevent tooth decay from occurring in the first place. 

Your baby's first dental check-up typically occurs at the one year milestone and this is one of the potential issues your dentist will look for.

Health problems caused by bottle rot

Infant tooth decay is common but entirely preventable. Just because baby teeth eventually fall out doesn’t mean you don’t need to start worrying about dental hygiene until your little one’s permanent teeth start to come through. Bottle rot and infant tooth decay negatively impacts your child’s long-term oral health, including issues with speech, problems with nutrition, and the development of adult teeth. 

A quick word about breastfeeding: Breastfed babies typically get a pass on bottle rot, as milk from the breast enters the mouth differently that milk from a bottle—usually bypassing the teeth entirely before it has an opportunity to pool in the mouth.

Bottle rot problem #1: speech issues

Human speech patterns assume a full mouth of teeth. It's part of the reason that babies can't make every sound. Even though babies can auditorily discriminate between subtle language sounds, teeth are required to form consonant ‘dental sounds’, including /d/, /n/, and /t/. Even ‘non-dental sounds’ like /f/ and /v/ require the lips to make contact with the teeth. Without healthy teeth, your child will struggle to articulate their sounds properly, lead to speech delays and possible speech therapy if  bottle rot damage to the teeth is extensive. 

Bottle rot problem #2: nutrition issues

Tooth decay is painful. Think about the last time you had a toothache. Chewing and swallowing—maybe even speaking—would have caused you considerable distress, but children are even more vulnerable to the pain caused by tooth decay. Children with extensive bottle rot often struggle to comfortably eat, leading to an increased risk of vitamin deficiencies and trouble getting the proper amount of daily calories. Without adequate nutrition, your child's growth and development can suffer. Healthy habits are formed early. Associating food with tooth pain can severely compromise this, and can lay the foundation for poor choices later in life.

Bottle rot problem #1: development of adult teeth

Baby teeth are essentially placeholders. If you’ve ever seen a detailed ultrasound of a fetus in utero, you’ll notice that even at this very early stage of development, they have all their teeth— both infant and adult. Because your baby or toddler’s jaw simply isn’t big enough to hold all their adult teeth, temporary baby teeth help stabilize the jaw until it’s ready to hold the larger permanent teeth. When bottle rot and tooth decay cause premature tooth loss, the adult teeth begin to crowd, which prevents proper growth and formation.

Causes of bottle rot

Infant tooth decay is most often caused by poor dental hygiene, but bottle rot is a specific kind of tooth decay caused by babies and toddlers falling asleep with bottles of milk or formula. 

This is because milk—or worse, juice—drank from a bottle easily pools around the gums and teeth. As the sugar in those drinks (yes, even breast milk!) maintains contact with the teeth, it aids the growth of bacteria, which eats away at tooth enamel, eventually leading to cavities forming. 

Preventing early tooth decay

How can you keep your child from developing bottle rot? The easy answer is not allowing them to fall asleep with a bottle in their mouth. But like any sleep aid, falling asleep with a bottle at night can be a very hard habit to break! It’s important to remember that, regardless of its contents, relying on a bottle to get to sleep can set your little one up for dental trouble in the future. 

If your child has gotten used to falling asleep with the aid of a bottle, there are a few things you can try:

  • If your child is over six months old, put water in their bottle. Water lacks any of the sugar that causes decay
  • For children under six months, or those who won't accept water, watch them as they drink, and remove the bottle as soon as you notice they have stopped sucking
  • If removing the bottle causes upset or distress, try replacing the bottle with a dummy while they’re almost asleep.

Any change in a bedtime routine going to cause a small amount of distress and getting used to, but as with most changes, a gentle approach is best to help wean your little one off their  nighttime bottles. 

In addition to eliminating nighttime bottles, make sure you are taking proper care of your little one's teeth as soon as they begin to emerge. Start brushing early; good dental hygiene sets up your child to acquire and maintain good, healthy habits. 

Good dental care at home is a cornerstone of your child’s health, but it’s also important to start seeing the dentist early, which will establish the good preventative care vital to your little one's future dental health. 

To quickly and easily schedule your little one’s first dental checkup, contact us today!