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Prevent childhood tooth decay with early dental intervention
May 16, 2024

This article is for dentists and pediatricians caring for our members

Tooth decay is the most common childhood chronic disease in the United States.1 By age five, about 60 percent of U.S. children will have had caries at some point, including the 40 percent of children who have it when they enter kindergarten. (2,5) You can help reduce this problem by recommending that your patients have a preventive visit with a dentist by age one or by six months after their first tooth erupts, whichever comes first.

During this well-baby visit with the baby’s caregivers, the dentist can:

  • Recommend healthy feeding advice for the baby and discuss the dangers of baby bottle tooth decay, which can happen when the child falls asleep with a bottle containing milk or juice.
  • Answer caregiver questions about teething and the use of pacifiers, and provide advice on avoidance of finger sucking habits.
  • Look for tooth decay and determine if the teeth seem to be erupting as expected.
  • Show the caregiver how to clean the child’s mouth to help prevent decay and treat incipient lesions early.

These well-baby visits help the baby and caregiver get acclimated to the dental office to make future visits more routine.

Consequences of early dental decay

When a child is not seen at an early age, untreated tooth decay and caries can result. Economic disparities significantly impact this problem: Children from families with lower income levels are twice as likely (25 percent) as those from higher income levels (11 percent) to have cavities.3 Untreated tooth decay can cause children unnecessary pain and suffering, and lead to problems with eating, speaking, and learning.4

When children have extensive tooth decay, it is often difficult to treat them in an office setting, even with sedation. Some children may require sedation in a hospital setting to allow the necessary treatment to occur, which can be traumatic for the child and expensive for the caregiver.

For these reasons, we urge you to use every opportunity you have with the patient’s family to stress the importance of early screening and well-baby check-ups so that you can provide the interventions above.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Oral health in America: A report of the Surgeon General, Executive summary. Rockville, MD: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. 2000.
  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research website. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/DataStatistics/SurgeonGeneral/sgr/home.htm
  3. Dye BA, Xianfen L, Beltrán-Aguilar ED.Selected Oral Health Indicators in the United States 2005–2008. NCHS Data Brief, no. 96. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2012.
  4. Susan O. Griffin, PhD; Liang Wei, MS; Barbara F. Gooch, DMD²; Katherine Weno, DDS¹; Lorena Espinoza, DDS. Vital Signs: Dental Sealant Use and Untreated Tooth Decay Among U.S. School-Aged Children, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report October 21, 2016 / 65(41);1141-1145.
  5. Pierce, K. M., Rozier, R. G., & Vann, W. F., Jr (2002). Accuracy of pediatric primary care providers' screening and referral for early childhood caries. Pediatrics, 109(5), https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.109.5.e82.