Toddler Cavities Don't Make You A Bad Mother — Really

by Wendy Wisner
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When my first child was 15 months old, I noticed a little brown line on one of his two front teeth. I tried to flick it away, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I freaked out a little (okay, a lot) and went down the rabbit hole of Googling what it could be. A stain from vitamins or other foods? Excessive fluoride intake stains? Genetic defects? Tooth decay?

Yeah, that last one made me physically ill to consider. Tooth decay would mean that I was a neglectful mother who was couldn’t even keep my kid’s teeth in order for the eight months that he’d had them. And I worried that the fact that he was “still” breastfeeding was going to be an issue (as though moms who breastfeed toddlers don’t get enough criticism and judgment).

In the month or two that I fretted over all this, that little brown line started to spread straight across all my son’s top teeth, and I knew that things were bad. So I quickly looked up dentists who were covered under our insurance and rushed him over to one.

I will never forget the first dentist we took him to. She confirmed my suspicion that we were dealing with a pretty aggressive case of tooth decay. She told me that the only thing that would help the situation would be if I weaned my son immediately. When I asked her about treatments for the decay that was already there, she told me again that weaning would be our only option.

Buh-bye. I definitely didn’t want to waste my time with a dentist who didn’t offer me any helpful solutions and resources beyond “wean immediately.”

Thankfully, we found a dentist soon after who was fantastic. Dr. Tina had nursed her own kids into the toddler years and told us that full-blown weaning was not our only option. She explained to us that tooth decay occurs because of bacteria that live on the teeth and eat away the enamel, especially if any sugars are left on the teeth.

She emphasized keeping the teeth clean at all times, following up meals and breastfeeding sessions with water, and toothbrushing several times a day. She also recommended a small, pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste and monthly fluoride varnishes at her office.

In other words: Things were not hopeless, I didn’t need to wean suddenly over all this, and there was a plan in place to fix the problem. This lady was a dentist-heroine-goddess. Also, she was really good with my son, who was anxious to be sitting in that big dentist’s chair. Dr. Tina made him smile, and her purple dentist’s gloves were all the rage, especially when she offered him her own pair to try on and keep.

After a year of following a very stringent cleaning routine (which our son hated, but that’s another story), and seeing the dentist monthly for cleaning, checkups, and fluoride varnishes, Dr. Tina declared his decay completely “arrested,” meaning that it was gone and totally inactive.

The whole experience was grueling, but successful, and over the years I’ve had friends come to me for advice on how to deal with toddler tooth decay. So, to any parents out there who are dealing with this, I will share some of that advice.

Find a good dentist.

Seriously, find one whom you feel comfortable with, and definitely one whom your kids like. Ask for recommendations, shop around. Find one who has a concrete plan for you. Make sure you address the problem early, and take your child to a dentist as soon as you suspect any kind of decay. Decay spreads quickly and you want to address the problem before it gets worse.

Accept the fluoride treatments.

Listen: I know there are some natural-minded folks out there who believe that fluoride is the devil. I definitely thought that for a second, too, until I did some research on the matter (and not via some crackpot website, but peer-reviewed medical journals). Things like Xylitol, grass-fed butter, or whatever else might be helpful too, but fluoride is really the best thing out there to halt tooth decay. Just ask any dentist, all of whom who have been to a lot more dental school than any of us have.

Take your toddler’s dental health seriously.

Some people say, “Oh, they’re just baby teeth.” That’s true, but cavities are bad for overall health, and you really don’t want your child’s mouth filled with disease-causing bacteria. As, the website of the Academy of American Pediatrics, explains it: “Baby teeth are important. If baby teeth are lost too early, the teeth that are left may move and not leave any room for adult teeth to come in. Also, if tooth decay is not prevented, it can be costly to treat, cause pain, and lead to life-threatening infections.” recommends taking your child to the dentist as early as possible before age 1, or sooner, if you see any potential problems.

Practice pro-active, preventative dental care whether your child has cavities or not.

This is huge, and I think not addressing dental care right away is one of the top reasons toddlers get cavities in the first place (besides the fact that certain children just seem to be prone to them genetically). has some simple and helpful tips for this on their site, but the top ones to keep in mind are to make sure you start cleaning your child’s teeth twice a day as soon as the first tooth emerges; do not let your child fall asleep with a bottle of anything other than water; and limit sugar or other sticky foods. recommends that all children brush their teeth with a “smear” of fluoride toothpaste as soon as they get teeth, whether there is decay or not.

Dealing with toddler tooth decay sucks, but it’s more common than you might think. In fact, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports that 42% of kids have had cavities in their baby teeth.

So remember that if your child gets a cavity in their baby teeth, you are not alone, and it certainly does not mean that you are a bad mom or anything like that. The good news if you catch the problem early and are proactive in working with your child and your dentist, there are treatment options out there that are effective.