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Cavities are one of the most common dental problems in toddlers and children. Also referred to as tooth decay, a cavity is a permanently damaged area in a tooth.

They can develop in your child’s primary or baby teeth, and if so, you might shrug it off — your child will eventually lose these teeth, right? So what does it matter? But you shouldn’t ignore a cavity.

Here’s what you need to know about cavities in kids, including common causes, treatment options, and prevention tips.

Cavities occur when a buildup of dental plaque eats at tooth enamel and causes a hole. Plaque is a sticky substance that covers teeth, and it forms when bacteria in the mouth combines with food, acid, and saliva.

Since regular brushing and flossing can prevent a buildup of plaque, cavities often develop when children don’t properly brush their teeth.

Children should brush their teeth for at least 2 minutes twice a day. Yet, some children only brush once a day. Or worse, they forget to brush entirely.

Children are unable brush well by themselves until they’re around 6 years old. It’s important that an adult brushes for a child, or supervises their brushing, until they’re old enough to do a thorough job.

Also, some children don’t floss their teeth or they floss incorrectly. Cavities can also develop when plaque and food particles aren’t removed from in between teeth. Flossing can be very hard for kids, so again parents need to help with this important step.

Remember, too, that good dental hygiene includes regular dental checkups. The same way adults see a dentist every 6 months, you should make dental appointments for your children.

Since baby teeth typically erupt around 6 months old, schedule your child’s first dental visit shortly after their first tooth becomes visible.

But, of course, poor dental hygiene isn’t the only cause of cavities — diet also plays a role. So there’s a higher risk for tooth decay if your child eats a lot of sweet, sugary or even starchy foods that are high in carbohydrates (ice cream, cakes, candy, crackers, chips, etc).

And although more research is needed, some people might be genetically predisposed to cavities due to a softer enamel.

Tooth decay doesn’t always cause pain, so recognizing a cavity in your kid can be difficult. Signs that indicate a possible cavity include:

  • dark spots on the tooth
  • white spots on the tooth
  • crying or fussiness
  • sensitivity to cold foods or drinks
  • mouth swelling
  • avoiding food
  • lethargy

If you suspect a cavity, make an appointment with a pediatric dentist. They can examine your child’s teeth for signs of decay and then recommend treatment based on the extent of tooth decay.

A dental filling is common for toddlers and children who have one or more cavities. Fillings can take place on permanent teeth, as well as on baby teeth.

During the procedure, the dentist removes the tooth decay and then fills the hole with a white composite or metal material. Filling a cavity that forms on a baby tooth can save or preserve the tooth.

Saving the tooth is important because losing baby teeth prematurely can cause a permanent tooth to improperly come in. Baby teeth also help with your child’s chewing and speaking. Dentists perform dental fillings on children and toddlers, sometimes as young as 1 or 2 years old.

In cases of severe tooth decay, your dentist might recommend a dental crown, which is typically silver in color.

Sometimes if the tooth is badly damaged or has an infection, the baby tooth may need to be extracted. If your dentist extracts the tooth, they’ll keep the gap open with a space maintainer, which helps permanent teeth grow in properly.

Of course, getting young children to sit for a dental procedure is challenging, to say the least. Some dentists will use nitrous oxide or laughing gas to help children relax during the procedure.

Dentists still have to give an injection to numb their gums, but laughing gas typically makes it much easier. Your dentist can also orally sedate your child before the procedure.

If your child has multiple cavities, your dentist might recommend breaking up the appointments. While this means more back-and-forth for you, it can put your child at ease, as they don’t have to sit in the dental chair for an extended period of time.

Your dentist may recommend putting your child to sleep for dental treatment. This is called general anesthesia, and it’s usually recommended when children are very young, if they have multiple cavities, and if they have trouble staying still.

The best way to prevent cavities in your child is to teach good oral hygiene.

We know you hate to feel like you have to police their efforts, but it’s important to closely monitor your child as they brush and floss their teeth. Make sure they know the proper technique, and that they brush for the recommended amount of time.

They should brush their teeth twice a day and floss at least once a day. The more effective order is to floss before brushing. Also, make sure you schedule dental appointments every 6 months.

Parents of younger babies: Don’t forget about infant oral care! Even if your baby doesn’t have teeth, their mouth still has germs.

So wipe their gums with a soft cloth after each feeding, and gently brush their teeth twice a day with a pea-size amount of kid-friendly fluoride toothpaste.

If your child has a sweet tooth, offer healthier alternatives to satisfy their cravings and maintain good dental health. Alternatives to cake, ice cream, cookies, or candy include:

  • low glycemic fruits (blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries)
  • trail mix, with nuts
  • yogurt
  • frozen bananas
  • cheese sticks
  • unsweetened applesauce
  • dried fruits with no sugar added
  • carrots and dip
  • granola bars

Cavities aren’t only an adult problem — they can also develop in children and toddlers. So it’s important to recognize the early signs of a cavity and then speak with your child’s dentist.

Fillings can prevent tooth decay from getting worse, which helps save a child’s tooth.

Between less sugar and good dental hygiene, you can protect your child’s teeth, thus preventing the likelihood of future cavities.