When Brandi Jacobs’ 4 year-old daughter was a baby, the Brownsville mother said she would often put her to sleep with a bottle in her mouth, but she made it a habit to rinse her mouth with water in the morning. Though she didn’t notice any signs of decay in her child’s mouth, her pediatrician recommended that she see a dentist.
“When the doctor told me to take her to a dentist I didn’t think it made sense because she was only six or seven months,” said Jacobs.
But dentists, say, it makes a lot of sense. Baby bottle tooth decay affects more than 70 percent of infants and young children. It can almost be considered an epidemic. But in the past five years in Brooklyn, the number of children under the age of two who have been diagnosed with baby bottle tooth decay is declining. The reason, according to experts: more educated parents and better awareness of dental prevention.
Dentists in Brooklyn say the drop in tooth decay among children is noticeable, though there is little statistical evidence to prove it. Dr. Flora Niderman from Atlantic Dental in downtown Brooklyn, for example, says an estimated two out of ten children she treats have baby bottle tooth decay compared to over 50 percent in the past.
“I think a lot of it has to do with how the demographics of Brooklyn are changing,” she said “When families of higher income move here they are usually more aware of these health issues.” According to the 2010 Census only 24 percent of Brooklyn residents reported income below the poverty level.
In 2008, the Department of Health in the State of New York reported that economic disparities are the leading cause of tooth decay. Children who are born into poverty and are minorities have a higher chance of contracting tooth decay. The reports also indicate that 7 out of 10 children have not been treated for tooth decay and enter school without receiving any kind of dental treatment. In a survey conducted by the Department of Health, 60 percent of low-income families have children who suffer from tooth decay and 48 percent of children from high-income families are affected.
For most mothers living below the national poverty level who have more than one child, lack of time and resources also factor into the equation. The more time a mother spends working to provide for her family, the less time she has to commit to learning about health issues that could be prevented such as baby bottle tooth decay.
Baby bottle tooth decay or Early Childhood Caries (ECC) is a bacterial infection that forms in the mouth of a young child. Acids, which are found in liquids such as milk, juice and cereal produce bacteria, and can cause severe decay if they sit in a child’s mouth for long periods of time. Doctor Bela Levingart, a graduate of New York University’s School of Dentistry and a dentist at Central Park Dentists, who has been practicing for 22 years, says if baby bottle tooth decay goes untreated it can have lasting effects.
“When teeth are constantly being bathed in liquid at night or during nap time, it eats away at the enamel of the teeth,” she said. According to Dr. Levingart it only takes a few months to cause permanent damage to the teeth. Parents should be alert to teeth that change color. If a tooth becomes black, the condition is serious, she warns.
Dr. Levingart says individual child-rearing practices play a significant role in tooth decay. “Most teenaged mothers are inexperienced and do not have the proper training to care for children,” she said “For example sometimes they leave a bottle in the babies mouth to put them to sleep.”
Instead, argues Dr. Niderman, parents should get in the habit of rinsing the baby’s mouth out with water or wiping their teeth with a damp cloth.
Baby bottles and milk are not the only culprit. Dr. Niderman has noticed more and more cases of tooth decay that are linked to sugar, than bacteria produced by liquids. “Children eat a lot of candy,” she said “So they come in with cavities and rotted teeth.”
Last year at the age of three, Jacobs noticed “a dent” in the back of her daughter’s mouth. After making a visit to the doctors she was told that her daughter had three cavities. “The dentist asked me her daily routine and what I gave her to eat during the day,” she said “I told her I gave her organic fruit snacks and organic fruit rollups.” Jacobs said she thought buying fruit snacks made with less sugar were better for her daughter’s teeth. “They told me that organic fruit snacks stick to the teeth and stay on the teeth longer,” she said.
It is imperative to treat decaying teeth immediately. If a child goes untreated the decay can affect the growth of permanent teeth and can shift positions of the teeth, making the child more likely to need braces in the future, according to Dr. Niderman. In the worst case scenario, the teeth may have to removed—a procedure that requires that a child be put to sleep to undergo the in-hospital procedure.
The earlier the baby bottle tooth decay is detected the better—and thanks to greater access to Medicaid and increasing awareness, more and more parents are nipping the problem before it develops. In statistics provided by the 2010 Census, 94 percent of families in New York are eligible for Medicaid. Most dentists in Brooklyn accept Medicaid or other insurance providers issued by the state of New York.
“Most places will not turn a child away especially if they are suffering from this syndrome,” said Levingart “We just have to make sure parents are holding up their end.”