Tooth decay can begin as soon as your child gets their first baby tooth. Fluoride, dental sealants, and regular dental cleanings can help prevent cavities from developing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of children ages 6–8 years have had a cavity.

Tooth decay may cause problems with eating, speaking, and participating in usual daily activities. It can begin as soon as your little one’s first tooth pops through the gum line, and it continues through adulthood.

Fluoride, brushing daily, and even special sealants are just some of the ways you can help protect your child’s teeth from cavities. If you suspect that your child may have tooth decay it’s important to talk with their dentist.

This article takes a look at treatment options that dentists use to help correct and prevent dental decay in children.

Learn more about your child’s teeth.

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Fluoride treatments can help prevent approximately one-third of cavities. In addition to the fluoride applied during dental visits and found in many toothpastes, you may live in a community where fluoride is added to the tap water.

Although fluoride can support healthy teeth, your child’s dentist may recommend using a smear amount (about the size of a rice grain) of toothpaste for children under 3 years old. This helps prevent them from consuming too much fluoride, which can lead to conditions like dental fluorosis and skeletal fluorosis.

Read more about fluoride.

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Your child should visit the dentist after their first tooth appears, but no later than their first birthday, experts suggest. This is important for detecting and treating early signs of tooth decay, along with more serious dental issues.

During your child’s regular dental visits, dental professionals will thoroughly clean and examine your child’s teeth. Your child may also get X-rays of their mouth.

To prepare them for their first visit, you can try:

  • reading children’s books about going to the dentist together
  • taking them along when you visit the dentist
  • arriving a little early before their first visit to allow them to become used to the office

Dental sealants are a thin coating applied to the tooth to help prevent decay. According to the CDC, 80% of cavities can be prevented for 2 years by applying dental sealants to the back teeth, where 90% of cavities occur. Although less than 50% of children have dental sealants, per the CDC, they are considered an effective and painless way to prevent tooth decay.

As your child loses their baby teeth, their dentist may recommend putting sealants on their permanent molars. The dentist may need to replace the sealants if they wear away over time.

Learn more about dental sealants.

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If your child’s tooth already has a cavity in it, their dentist may choose to fill it in order to prevent further tooth decay and pain.

Although the dentist can frequently perform the process in less than an hour, young children may require special accommodations to remain still while their dentist fills their cavities.

Learn more about dental fillings.

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Several factors can cause tooth decay, such as:

  • having extra bacteria in the mouth
  • drinking sugary beverages
  • not brushing and cleaning teeth well
  • frequent snacking throughout the day or bedtime feedings
  • experiencing dry mouth
  • health conditions like eating disorders and heartburn

Tooth decay typically occurs when foods high in carbohydrates (such as starches and sugars) remain on teeth.

When bacteria in the mouth interacts with these food particles, it can form plaque, which sticks to the teeth, and acid that breaks down the tooth’s enamel.

Over time, this plaque can develop into tartar, which acts as a protective barrier for the bacteria causing decay. It also makes it harder to remove future plaque.

To prevent tooth decay, your child should:

  • their teeth multiple times a day
  • visit the dentist regularly
  • not sleep with a bottle or sippy cup in their mouth
  • eat a balanced diet and avoid sticky, sugary, or starch-filled snacks
  • drink water throughout the day to wash away food particles and keep the mouth moist
  • not share food, drinks, and eating utensils, which can transfer bacteria from mouth to mouth

Tooth decay, also known as cavities, is a common concern in children. The use of fluoride, dental sealants, and regular dental cleanings can help treat and prevent tooth decay.

When tooth decay occurs, a filling may be necessary to prevent pain and additional harm to the tooth.

It’s important to talk with a dentist if you have any questions about your child’s teeth.