As a parent, have you ever shared a spoon with your child, or kissed them on the lips? Better yet, have you cleaned the pacifier with your own mouth before returning it to your child? Human behaviors play a major role in the prevention of the most common oral diseases despite their infectious character. Yes, cavities are contagious! Behaviors related to the transmission of oral bacteria, together with diet and oral hygiene, are important in the cause of cavities in toddlers. Consequently, protecting babies and toddlers from the maternal transmission of oral bacteria is considered vital to their oral health (yes, mothers are the number one cause). The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, has published various guidelines and recommendations on health practices for mothers and caregivers. In addition, reducing the mother’s own oral bacteria has shown to help minimize its transference to the child, therefore decreasing the risk for cavities.
The primary culprit of cavities is Streptococcus mutans, bacteria that can pass from person to person through the transfer of saliva, such as sharing utensils, blowing on food, and kissing on or around the mouth. This transference can occur from one adult to another as well, so it is imperative to make sure the oral hygiene of the parents is as healthy as possible prior to their baby’s birth. In over thirty years of studies, this is the primary way to help prevent future cavities in pre-school aged children.
The good news is: only people with active tooth decay can spread the Streptococcus mutans bacteria through the transfer of saliva. More good news: transmission is the most probable during the window of infectivity, which is during infancy and especially during the time of tooth eruption. That’s when the teeth are most vulnerable. The tooth enamel on newly erupted teeth is incredibly soft, sometimes taking up to three mo”nths to completely mineralize and harden. That being said, teeth erupt sometimes from birth through age three, then again for adult teeth from about age six through the ages of 12-14!
So, how to prevent this from happening? Mommies-to-be should see a dentist in their second trimester – if they haven’t already within the last six months – to make sure they have healthy mouths and healthy habits (or at least trying to): brushing twice a day; flossing daily; using an alcohol-free mouthwash after brushing twice daily; sticking to a lower sugar/carb diet; drinking water; chewing sugar-free xylitol gum. Studies show all sugar-free gum chewers who chew gum after meals for about twenty minutes are significantly less likely to acquire cavities. Even without taking dental x-rays, dentists can use other means that are mommy and baby safe to determine the health of a tooth. Ask your dentist if they use Diagnodent, a laser fluorescence detector with a precise method for identifying fissure/groove cavities on the biting surface, cavities in-between teeth and periodontitis.
Bottom line: babies are born without oral bacteria in the mouth. We give them our bacteria! So, it’s important to avoid sharing saliva with babies right from the start. Some helpful suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry:
- Before your baby’s first tooth becomes visible in the mouth, you should wipe the mouth every day with a soft, moist washcloth (Dr. Brown’s Tooth and Gum Wipes are also incredibly effective);
- Establish bedtime routines that do not involve using the bottle filled with milk or juice to soothe the baby to sleep.
- Also avoid having the baby sleep with a bottle or cup filled with milk or juice as the natural sugars in these liquids will get changed to acid, which will rot or decay the teeth and lead to dental infection and pain. Avoid having your baby drink from a sippy cup filled with juice between meals.
- Do not give your baby juice until at least one year old. Do not give your baby more than 4-6 ounces of juice per day. Parents are strongly encouraged to dilute juice when offered, and it should only be offered with a meal.
- If you see white spots developing on your baby’s teeth, then take your baby to a pediatric dentist right away. A white spot is often the first sign of a dental cavity.