So much to learn about your new baby. His feeding pattern. What his cries mean. Whether that’s a normal dirty diaper. What that rash is. When there are so many concerns about what you can see, it can seem overwhelming to think about things that you can’t see!
One of those “invisible” concerns may surprise you: your baby’s teeth. Despite the great majority of babies having bare gums at birth, the teeth are already formed; they just haven’t popped through. For this reason, it’s important to consider infant dental health from the get-go, even before the baby is born. There are many good resources on prenatal dental health. Let’s now look at some considerations for the new arrival, with emphasis on the do’s and don’ts with regard to bottle feeding.
Is Bottle Feeding Bad for the Teeth?
Parents who choose to bottle feed at some point during infancy can relax a little: it appears that simply making this choice is not automatically signing their little one up for a lifetime of dental problems. Yet although using the bottle can be a safe option where the teeth are concerned, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go about it carefully.
One of the risks to be avoided is known as nursing bottle syndrome. This occurs when an infant is allowed a bottle in the bed, putting her teeth in constant contact with what’s in the bottle. And if that includes a sugary liquid—and although you may be thinking of juice here, remember that formula and milk (even breast milk) both contain sugar—that’s a recipe for dental caries (otherwise known as tooth decay).
Although pure water in a bottle doesn’t appear to cause nursing bottle syndrome, it’s likely better in the long run to avoid the habit of having any bottle in the bed. Although that “ba-ba” seems like an easy solution to calm a baby, there are many alternatives. Keep in mind that infants at their crying peak—around six weeks of age—cry up to 2 ½ hours a day (sometimes more if you’re unlucky) and will suck on anything. Even if that bed bottle seems to solve the problem, if your baby’s gaining weight, he doesn’t need it.
For a young infant, try simple soothing measures: frequent holding and rocking, music, the sound of a heartbeat. And pediatricians are becoming a little more “pro” on pacifiers. Not only do they satisfy an infant’s sucking needs, but there is some evidence that they may help protect against sudden infant death syndrome. And they certainly don’t involve any sugar exposure.
Older Infants and the Bottle
Beyond four to six months of age, babies go into a new phase. They can begin to hold their own bottle. Their teeth often begin to pop out. They have new, unique ways of soothing themselves. The flip side of this is that they know what they want and aren’t afraid to let parents know!
It’s at this age—older infancy into toddlerhood—that parents and pediatricians start to think of weaning concerns. And although your baby may be taking liquids by bottle for a while yet, it’s important to look to the day that the bottle will be gone.
The risk here is that the teeth will not be lined up properly (malocclusion). In order to avoid this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be weaned from the bottle by 18 months. And by two years of age at the latest, the pacifier should no longer be your child’s best friend. (There is not a lot of research on age of weaning and malocclusion. And other activities such as thumbsucking at a later age and heredity may determine a child’s risk for the problem. But getting rid of the bottle has other advantages such as avoiding ear problems and obesity. And, of course, toddlers continue to be at risk for tooth decay.)
Alas, weaning is not always easy. But it in many cases can be made easier by starting to plan for the process when your baby is a few months old. As she grows older, she’ll get more mobile—but don’t give her the bottle as cargo! Save it for feeding time. Similarly, if she needs a routine to fall asleep, try not to have a feeding as part of the bedtime ritual. And give some thought to introducing a cup early—even if it’s just small sips and larger messes at first!
In summary, most infants and toddlers will be taking a bottle at some point in their young lives. All have the potential to do well, dentally speaking. In order to avoid bottle-based tooth problems, remember to take that bottle out of the bed and be mindful of weaning at the right age. These two measures, when combined with early dental care, will help ensure a great smile!