Women's and Children's Hospital, Adelaide

'Stop the Rot'

Nursing Bottle Tooth Decay in Young Children

In recent years thousands of young South Australian children have been admitted to hospital for an operation to have their teeth removed under general anaesthetic.  These operations have been needed because of nursing bottle tooth decay.  This is very worrying, especially since nursing bottle tooth decay is totally preventable.

What is nursing bottle tooth decay?

Nursing bottle tooth decay happens in young children who frequently suck on bottles of fluid containing sugars. Sugars are in fluids such a fruit juice and cordial, and surprisingly in milk and milk formulas. Sugars are also present in honey, jam, and glycerine which are sometimes used to sweeten a child’s dummy and provide comfort.

How does nursing bottle tooth decay happen?

Bacteria in the mouth feed on the sugars, and in the process make acids, which eat away at the young child’s tooth enamel and cause decay.  Young children’s teeth are more susceptible to decay than adults.

Each time a young child drinks these fluids, acids attack the child’s teeth for at least 20 minutes.  If these fluids are given often, or for long periods of time, tooth decay occurs.  That is why allowing a young child to suck constantly on a bottle during the day, letting them fall asleep with a bottle or giving a sweetened dummy can seriously harm a young child’s teeth.

Quite severe nursing bottle tooth decay can happen in children as young as 18 months of age and can start from the time teeth first appear.

Which teeth are most affected?

The upper front teeth are the most likely to decay, but other teeth may also be affected by this condition.

How can nursing bottle tooth decay be prevented?

Only use a bottle with milk or other sweet fluids for the regular feeding of your child – not to pacify them in between feeds or when settling them to sleep.  If your child needs to be given fluids between regular feeds or when going off to sleep, fill a bottle with cool water or give your child a non-sweetened clean dummy.

It is best not to let your child fall asleep with a bottle of milk or other sweet fluids in their mouth.  If your child won’t settle without a bottle of milk, as soon as they falls asleep, remove the bottle.

Don’t use honey or glycerine or any other sweetened substance on your child’s dummy.

Encourage your child to drink from a cup at 6 months of age, and wean them from the bottle by 12 months.

How can I tell if my child has nursing tooth decay?

Sometimes the teeth change colour and become soft.  Often toothache is the first sign.

What do I do if I think my child has nursing bottle decay?

Have your child’s teeth checked by a child dentist or school dentist, even if your child is still very young.

Why is it such a problem if my child’s baby teeth become decayed?

Decayed teeth affect a child’s appearance and can cause pain.  They can also become infected.  Because young children often can’t cope with dental treatment in the dentist’s chair, they need to be treated by having a general anaesthetic in hospital.

Back to Dentistry

last modified: 30 Mar 2009