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It’s the inevitable question after a visit to the pediatric dentist: “Did they find any cavities?” Many of the things kids love, including candy, cookies, and juice, can cause tooth decay and cavities. Pair that with the fact that few kids brush as diligently as they should, and it’s no wonder cavities are nearly a rite of passage. A thorough understanding of what causes cavities and how to prevent them can help ensure good news after every dental visit. 

What Causes Cavities in Kids?

Cavities are caused by harmful bacteria in the mouth that erode tooth enamel. These bacteria, commonly referred to as plaque, feed on sugar and produce acid that slowly bores through enamel until reaching the inner layer of the tooth (the dentin). Some of the most common culprits that help plaque thrive include:

  • Sugary food and drinks – Plaque bacteria feed on the carbohydrates that remain in a child’s mouth after a meal. Candy, fruit juice, and even breast milk can set the stage for trouble.
  • Poor oral hygiene – Inadequate brushing and flossing allows plaque to take hold and can lead to tooth decay. It’s important to instill good oral hygiene habits in kids early on (and check-in to make sure they’re following your advice!).
  • Dry mouth – Saliva helps to wash away plaque, so when a child suffers from dry mouth, plaque can develop more easily.
  • Parents - Babies are born without plaque bacteria in their mouths, but it is often transferred to them by their mothers or fathers through saliva. When a parent eats from the same spoon as their baby or a child shares a toothbrush with someone, the bacteria can be passed along.
  • Medical problems – Children who vomit frequently due to a medical condition or illness can be prone to cavities caused by stomach acid damaging enamel.

Is it Normal for Kids to Get Cavities?

Yes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay remains one of the most common childhood diseases in the United States. Forty-two percent of children between the ages of 2-11 develop a cavity in their baby teeth, particularly between the ages of 6-11, as stated by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). It’s important to schedule regular checkups at the dentist (every 6 months) so cavities can be spotted and filled as soon as possible.

Is it necessary to fill a baby tooth that’s going to fall out eventually? Absolutely. Regardless of whether the tooth is temporary or permanent, the cavity needs to be filled. Not treating tooth decay can lead to the spread of diseases and infections in the mouth (some of which are contagious). Early detection is key to limiting the damage.

Treating Tooth Decay in Kids

Your child’s dentist can usually diagnose tooth decay with a standard dental exam , which may include an X-ray . In most cases, treatment will involve cleaning the tooth and filling the cavity to keep out bacteria. It’s sometimes necessary to administer nitrous oxide for pain relief, but you can discuss this with your dentist ahead of time.

If multiple teeth need to be filled, your dentist may fix all of the cavities at once or over the course of several appointments. If the decay is causing gum issues, extracting your child’s baby tooth may be necessary. Many dentists will fill the gap with a space maintainer to allow enough room for the adult tooth to erupt later

Preventing Cavities in Babies, Toddlers and Kids

At varying stages of your child’s development, different oral care methods can be adopted to prevent tooth decay and oral health issues.

  • Babies – Oral health care begins before their first tooth comes in. Wipe your baby’s gums with a damp washcloth after every feeding.
  • Toddlers – Avoid sharing spoons or toothbrushes with your toddler. Make sure they brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste (you can choose from many flavors that are appealing to kids).
  • Kids – Add regular flossing before bed to their routine. Keep tabs on their brushing habits—kids have been known to stretch the truth!

Finding a Dentist

Smile Generation-trusted dentists take kid’s dental care very seriously. You can find a pediatric dentist near you in our online directory.