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Baby bottle tooth decay: How does sugar affect your baby’s teeth?

It’s tempting. Your baby has been crying for so long and you know exactly what will help — a pacifier with honey on it or a bottle of milk to snuggle up with. While this strategy may help comfort your baby right now, too much of either honey or milk could lead to issues with their teeth.

What is baby bottle tooth decay?

Baby bottle tooth decay is caused by the frequent and long-term exposure of a child's teeth to liquids containing sugars. Liquids that cause baby bottle tooth decay include milk, formula, fruit juice and other sweetened drinks. The sugars in these liquids pool around the infant's teeth and gums, feeding the bacteria that cause plaque. Every time a child consumes a sugary liquid, acid attacks the teeth and gums. After numerous attacks, tooth decay can begin.

The condition also is associated with breast-fed infants who have prolonged feeding habits and with children whose pacifiers are frequently dipped in honey, sugar or syrup. The sweet fluids left in the mouth increases the chance of cavities while the infant is sleeping.

How can I prevent baby bottle tooth decay?

First, never allow your baby to fall asleep with a bottle containing milk, formula, juice or other sweetened liquids. Then, be sure to clean and massage your baby’s gums once a day to help establish healthy teeth and to aid in teething. Wrap a moistened gauze square or washcloth around the finger and gently massage the gums and gingival tissues.

Don’t delay! Once your baby’s first tooth erupts, it’s time to start brushing. When brushing your child’s teeth, use a soft toothbrush and a pea-shaped amount of toothpaste. Before your child can spit, be sure to use non-fluoride toothpaste. However, once your child can spit, you should use fluoride toothpaste. Bring your child to the dentist for a first visit when the child is between 6 and 12 months old.

Will changes in my child’s diet help prevent baby bottle tooth decay?

Preventing baby bottle tooth decay can involve changes in a child's diet. A series of small changes over a period of time is usually easier, and eventually leads to better oral health.

To incorporate these changes:

  • Gradually dilute the bottle contents with water over a period of two to three weeks.
  • Once that period is over, if you give a child a bottle, fill it with water or give the child a clean pacifier recommended by a dentist. The only safe liquid to put in a bottle to prevent baby bottle tooth decay is water.
  • Decrease consumption of sugar, especially between meals.
  • Wean children from the bottle as soon as they can drink from a cup, but don’t take away their bottle too soon, since the sucking motion aids in the development of tongue and facial muscles.

Why should I be worried about baby bottle tooth decay?

Just like in adults, damage caused to your baby’s teeth can lead to pain, infection and eventually tooth extraction. Unfortunately, pain and early tooth loss can cause your child to develop poor eating habits, speech problems, crooked teeth and even damaged adult teeth.

It’s OK to occasionally give sweet beverages to your baby. The real concern is long-term exposure to sugars that damage teeth. Protect your baby’s health by following these guidelines and consulting with your dentist.

Last updated December 20, 2022

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.