Baby Bottle Tooth Decay (Infant Caries)

Written by Jacquelyn Cafasso | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Wider, MD

What Is Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?

Infant caries is the medical term for tooth decay in infants and young children. It may also be called:

  • early childhood caries
  • baby bottle tooth decay
  • bottle mouth

Baby bottle tooth decay usually occurs on the front teeth. Cavities, or “caries,” are caused by too much sugar on the teeth. The sugar, which is found in milk or formula, as well as other artificially sweetened liquids and snacks.

Infant caries can be a serious problem. A child needs his or her teeth to chew, and speak and smile. Baby teeth also hold the space for adult teeth. If a tooth is lost too early or if tooth decay is left untreated, pain and infection can occur. In addition, if baby teeth do not develop properly, your baby may develop poor eating habits, have speech problems or his/her due to tooth decay or another reason, adult teeth can may grow in crooked or crowded.

There are many ways to prevent infant caries when bottle-feeding. Proper dental hygiene and cleanings are essential.

As a parent, it is your responsibility to keep your baby’s teeth clean in his or her early years, and later to teach your child how to properly clean his/her teeth.

What Causes Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?

Bottle tooth decay occurs when baby teeth come into contact with too much sugar. Bacteria in the mouth feed on the sugar, multiply, and produce acid as a waste product. The acid attacks the teeth and tooth enamel, resulting in tooth decay.

Sugar is found in:

  • milk
  • infant formula
  • juice
  • snacks

When an infant sleeps with a bottle, or uses a bottle or sippy cup for extended periods of time, the sugar can sit on and coat the teeth. This causes the teeth to decay more quickly in some people.

What Are the Symptoms of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay?

The caries caused by decay can occur in any of the teeth. However, they most often occur on the upper front teeth. Caries can appear as dark or brown spots on the teeth.

Potential Complications of Baby Bottle Tooth Decay

Widespread or severe tooth decay can cause complications including:

  • pain
  • crooked adult teeth
  • chewing pain or problems
  • serious infections

How Can Baby Bottle Tooth Decay Be Prevented?

It is possible to prevent infant caries by being smart about bottle-feeding and properly cleaning your child’s teeth.

Bottle Feeding Tips

  • Do not put your child to sleep with a bottle of juice or milk. The sugar in the liquid will remain on your infant’s teeth for hours. If you must give your child a bottle, fill it with water. Some pediatricians recommend giving a bottle in the crib at all, others say that the child must be able to sit up on his/her own.
  • Do not let your child walk around with a bottle of juice or milk.
  • Avoid filling bottles with sugar water, soft drinks, or juices.
  • Teach your child how to drink from a cup at around six months of age. Wean them off the bottle by age 12 to 14 months.
  • Avoid prolonged pacifier use. Never dip a pacifier in honey or syrup. Never give honey to a baby under 1 year old for any reason.
  • Limit the amount of juice you give your child.
  • Encourage healthy eating habits, and limit sweets.

Cleaning Tips

  • Wipe your infant’s gums after a feeding. Use a cloth to remove food bits or plaque.
  • Begin brushing your child’s teeth as soon as they grow in.
  • Have the whole family brush teeth together at bedtime.
  • When your child is old enough not to swallow it, use fluoridated toothpaste. Fluoride helps the teeth resist acid. However, it can be dangerous if swallowed, important to monitor.
  • Floss your child’s teeth after all of them have grown in.
  • Have a dentist inspect your child’s teeth regularly.

Your child’s first dentist’s visit should occur within six months after the first tooth appears. According to the American Dental Association, children should see a dentist before their first birthday (ADA).

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