Cavities in toddlers: causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

Once you become a parent, your priorities change. Drastically. Involuntarily. Stealthily. When? How? It just happens. Life and all its innumerable joys suddenly stop revolving around external stimuli; we’re no longer interested in things such as haute couture, romantic sunsets, and Zen Buddhism. No. The sole epicenter of our entire world can now be depicted in what others may find hilarious and far from meaningful: our toddler’s smile. Those two silly, tiny rows of crooked, idiosyncratic human tusks mean the world to us. Their smile. Nothing else. – Ah, but we’re getting a bit carried away here. You’re a parent, remember? We don’t get to experience the thrill of being carefree. So, send in the clowns! Cavity party! Who’s in charge of the balloons? Here’s all you need to know about cavities in toddlers. No need to panic; we’ve got this.

What is a cavity?

Sounds pretty benign, doesn’t it? Growing up, we’ve all had a cavity or two that needed fixing, no? What’s the big deal, then? Well. Times change. Dental caries – or cavities – are decay-induced holes in teeth; they are the end result of tooth decay that, if ignored and left untreated, can lead to tooth doom, as it gradually eats the material away. What happens then? The tooth will a) fall out or b) be removed by a dentist. Surely, on the surface, it’s not that big of a problem; it’s just a cavity. However, cavities and dental decay have become far too common in children. We can now claim with absolute certainty it’s become the most infectious disease in toddlers. Modern times and candy, hey? No matter how seemingly irrelevant, we should think future tense – fast forward to finding top invisible braces when they’re of adolescent age. Remember, every stage counts.

little girl with missing front teeth against white background smiling
Cavities in toddlers? Oh, it matters.

Cavity causes

Now we know; a cavity is the breakdown of tooth enamel. What is enamel? It’s the outer surface of our teeth. It’s what makes the “clinking” sound; the shell of the tooth. So, what causes cavities in toddlers’ teeth? The simple answer would be – plaque. What does plaque do? The hardworking sticky coating of plaque that forms on the teeth as our toddler munches throughout the day collects the goodies from the food – and by that, we mean – sugars. So, if we fail to brush our teeth thoroughly, the remaining bacteria get their revenge by releasing acids that subsequently break down the yielding enamel, thus, forming cavities in the tooth. Too much information? Alright. We’ll take it easy. On to the causes:

  1. Genetics
  2. Poor diet
  3. Tooth location
  4. Poor oral hygiene habits
  5. Bottle use

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Some toddlers may be prone to cavities due to genetic factors. Depending on our child’s (fortunate or unfortunate) genetic code, low saliva production, as well as tooth shape, can affect proneness to tooth decay. – A roulette, really. While we can discuss things like – should my child get self-ligating braces or something fancier – we can’t really choose our genetic material, can we? (nobody’s fault, though!)

Poor diet

Take a wild guess. – You’re absolutely, 100% right. Sugary foods and tooth death. A high-sugar diet can cause (and will cause) acid to build up on the toddler’s teeth and weaken the enamel. Needless to say, it increases the chances of cavity occurrence. Additionally, snacks are enemies. Frequent snacking can only fire up the plaque, leading to more build-up and, consequently, more damage.

Tooth location

Tooth decay mostly affects premolars and molars due to their position in the mouth; the pits and grooves make it easy breezy for cavities to pop up and start destroying the tooth.

Poor oral hygiene habits

Brushing our teeth. We all have childhood PTSD episodes; brush it, brush it like you mean business! Kill the germs! -Well, so it turns out, our parents were right. And so are we (funnily enough, only now that we’re parents). Good oral hygiene is your power tool. Sloppy or infrequent brushing allows plaque to feed on teeth longer. The acid in high-sugar foods starts attacking the enamel immediately after every meal. – If we don’t brush, that is. Pro advice: get the cutest, most appealing toothbrush a toddler could want. Bunny ears and jingle bells and all.

Bottle use

What do you mean, bottle use?! – Yes, bottles. Be careful with those. Toddlers who drink sugar-powered juice out of bottles or use them as pacifiers can likely develop tooth decay. To make things worse – it usually affects the middle two front teeth. Now, who’s happy with their child having black front teeth? Ever seen a pair of those? Like it? – Now you know. We may think – they don’t need to work on their confidence just yet; we have braces for that. Surely. But, think long run.

African American toddler with bottle depicts how cavities in toddlers emerge
Even the most endearing habit can pose a danger to your toddler’s oral health.

Cavities in toddlers: The symptoms

Just slap on some filling, and we’re good to go! – said a good parent – never. Cavity symptoms are excruciatingly difficult to spot – that’s the issue. The early stages of tooth decay leave no red flags, no black dots. On the surface, everything is spick and span. – Until it’s too late and you have a toddler in distress. That’s why regular dentist appointments are crucial for keeping the looming cavities at bay. (and, preferably, our emotional and mental health intact) Regular checkups can help detect a cavity before it needs more than just a filling.  Toddlers and dentist drills? Let’s not go there. On the upside (if there are any), getting your toddler acquainted with the whole dentist routine can be a plus, especially prior to getting braces.

Early signs

Toddlers struggle with verbal articulation. Every impending sensation is a novelty, really. Is it good, is it bad? How uncomfortable is it? They have a harder time addressing their discomforts, as their variety of sensory experiences is rather limited. So, our toddler may not exhibit distinct signs of cavity distress, at least not right away. Often enough, the signs will be quite subtle and can easily go unnoticed. Parental advice: make it a habit to examine their teeth after brushing. If you spot any changes, be sure to contact your toddler’s dentist. Early signs may include:

  • sensitivity to hot and cold beverages and sweets
  • pain in the area around the affected tooth (inflamed gums)
  • white spots are an important early sign; they show that the enamel is starting to break down
  • slight discoloration (usually light brown) is also  considered an early stage of tooth decay
  • sour taste in their mouth
  • jaw aches or headaches
  • bad breath

Cavity progression signs

Before we get to ask ourselves sensible questions regarding our child’s future physical appearance, such as “Are invisible braces a medical expense? Or does it fall in the aesthetic improvement category?”, we need to stay focused; alert. And look out for cavities. Why is it so important? Preventing cavities in toddlers is paramount for the future health of adult teeth, as it can cause improper development. As tooth decay progresses, the light discoloration may turn dark brown or even black. Other signs of cavity progression can include:

  • irritability: toddlers cannot pinpoint the source of their discomfort, nor can they articulate the cause of their uneasiness. Cavity progression may lead to excessive irritability; they may cry more often or throw temper tantrums without any reasonable cause.
  • trouble eating: tooth pain can turn eating into an unpleasant experience; if they’re not munching on snacks as they used to, it could be that they’re avoiding certain food that induces physical discomfort.
  • not gaining weight: action-reaction; if they are not eating a balanced diet (due to discomfort), their weight may start stagnating.
child playing with food
If they’re not eating right, it could be tooth decay.

Cavities in toddlers: treatment options

The approach to treating tooth decay in toddlers usually depends on their age, symptoms, and general health. The treatment is almost identical (or should we say – identical, minus smiles, patience, and kudos from the dentist) to that of adults. Typically, the treatment requires removing the decayed part of the tooth and replacing it with a filling (also known as restorations).  There are two types of fillings:

  1. direct restorations
  2. indirect restorations

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Direct restorations

A filling is placed directly into the prepared cavity. (by the cavity, we mean the hole). There are five types of tooth fillings materials:

The filling material is of a wide range: resin, fine glass powders, silver, and acrylic acids; the fillings are almost always tooth-colored.

Indirect restorations

Depending on how severe the condition is, indirect restoration may require two or more visits to the dentist. The work includes onlays, inlays, crowns, veneers, and bridges. Materials used for this type of restoration mimic natural tooth enamel to perfection.

Getting a filling requires inserting an injection in the toddler’s mouth so as to numb the pain during the procedure. Needless to say, it can be a stressful experience for the little ones. But fear not; there’s always sedation dentistry. Nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas,” can help them get through the ordeal. Talk to their dentist, and ask for advice. They will know exactly how to minimize any potential stress, physical and psychological.

little girl smiling at the dentist depicts how cavities in toddlers should be addressed
Find a good dentist. A round of laughing gas.

Short-term pain relief

Cavities in toddlers – utter distress in parents.  Once the ache commences, there’s only so much we can do; except go to the dentist straight away. If you’re unable to make an appointment the same day, worry not – there are a few things that can help with alleviating the pain at home. Remember, though, these are only temporary solutions:

  • clove oil: a potent ingredient called eugenol is also used for toothaches. How to use: a few drops of clove oil should be diluted with a teaspoon of coconut or olive oil. Take a cotton ball, let it absorb the solution, and then apply it to the painful area. P.S. Be sure to stay right by their side so as to prevent your toddler from accidentally swallowing the cotton ball.
  • saltwater: one of the simplest toothache-relief solutions; rinsing their mouth with warm salt water. Saltwater is antibacterial, so a warm saline rinse can help with inflammation and pain. How to make: Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Rinse, spit. Repeat. Again, avoid this particular method if your toddler can’t follow instructions.

Cavity prevention

First things first: we start with cavity prevention today; saving up for braces can wait a year or two. So, how do we prevent cavities in toddlers? It’s not fun, but it works. And – you guessed it: good oral hygiene. Nothing more, nothing less. The alpha and omega of dental health. Monitoring our little ones as they floss and brush their teeth may sound a bit militant and intrusive, but let’s not forget: they’re toddlers. We’re supposed to be all up in their business. Teach them proper brushing techniques, and make sure they follow the 2/2 rule. 2 minutes – 2 times a day. Other reminders:

  • don’t forget to floss! (floss before brushing their teeth)
  • even if your infant doesn’t have teeth yet, don’t forget to practice infant oral care (wipe their gums after feeding with a soft cloth)
  • use toddler-friendly fluoride toothpaste
  • dentist checkups every 6 months
  • say no to letting them fall asleep with their sippy cup (milk or juice; only water)
  • introduce healthier ingredients

Sweet tooth alternatives

assorted fruits in white bowl
Find healthy alternatives. Save their smile.

Cavities, anyone? Okay, then. Grab a healthy snack. If your toddler suffers from a chronic sweet tooth, offer healthier alternatives that can scratch their itch and save the little human tusks from enduring unnecessary pain. Alternatives include:

  • carrots
  • dried fruits (no added sugar, please)
  • yogurt
  • berries (any)
  • frozen bananas
  • cheese sticks
  • nuts (if they’re old enough)

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Final words

So, cavities in toddlers are no joke. Yes, we know; imposing rules is hard. Heartbreaking, really. We want them to eat as much ice cream and chocolate cake as possible. We live for that chocolate-smudged smile. All the same; long story short: discipline. If you find that your parenting game needs a helping hand, we’re here for you. You can find every piece of information a parent could ever need right here at your Consumer Opinion Guide. (from age limit for braces to mortgage tips. We’re versatile like that.)


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