My 3-Year-Old Had Cavities: A Cautionary Tale

It all started when I was brushing my son’s teeth one night before bed, and I noticed a little spot on his tooth.

“What in the world could that be?” I wondered to myself, never thinking a 3-year-old could have a cavity.

When I took him to my dentist a few days later, I found out it wasn’t a cavity. Not just one. It was four cavities.

I felt like the worst mother in the world. My little man counted on me and his Daddy to take care of him, and we had completely failed him. How in the world could two parents who adore their child – and who actually brush his teeth every night – let this happen?

Well, there’s a little saying I’ve come to hate, because I used to believe it was true: “They’re just baby teeth. They’re going to fall out anyway.”

It turns out that saying is completely misleading. The way we take care of baby teeth is extremely important. Cavities can cause pain just like they do in adult teeth. And, speaking of adult teeth, kids’ permanent teeth are already forming inside their mouth, right behind their baby teeth. A serious enough cavity can actually spread to the adult teeth before they even see the light of day.

Tooth-brushing was a part of our son’s bedtime routine every night, but he hated it. We would struggle just to get one or two swipes across each tooth. We finally started letting him do the brushing, himself, many nights. But our dentist told us that kids just don’t do a good enough job: they need help with their brushing until they’re about 12 years old. She said regardless of the struggling and squirming, we shouldn’t skimp on giving our kids a thorough brushing every night. And flossing? Yep, they need that, too.

I don’t know why I was dumb enough to believe the rules of dental hygiene should be more lax for toddlers. Once in a while, I would let my son drink some milk or eat a snack after his nighttime brushing. When he was potty training, I would reward him with candy every morning after he used the potty. Did it occur to me to brush his teeth? Nope. They’d be fine until bedtime.

Well, four fillings and a few sealants later, my little guy doesn’t eat so much candy. When he does, we make sure to brush soon after. And he knows now that there are no snacks, no drinks other than water, once we’ve brushed his teeth.

The dentist taught me a lot as I was going through the grueling process of getting my son’s X-rays and dental work. Here are some tips I wish someone would have shared with me:

  • A 20-second brushing is hardly enough. Shoot for a full two minutes.
  • Brush up and down rather than back and forth because the back and forth motion pushes plaque into the grooves of teeth.
  • Using an electric toothbrush can help you give the teeth the more thorough scrubbing they need.
  • Limit sweets and candy. Our dentist recommended only allowing candy once a week, with a brushing immediately after. (In my experience, stubborn Grandmas tend to break this rule, so you might want to brush after you get home from Grandma’s house, too.)
  • Don’t skimp on the floss. There are horror stories about kids swallowing their floss. Use a decent length: 18 inches is a common recommendation.
  • To help with flossing, sit your child on your lap facing you. They also make little flossing tools that can make it easier to do.
  • Build habits. Make sure your child knows brushing is part of every night’s routine. Our dentist also recommended having our son brush his own teeth once a day to get a feel for brushing, himself.
  • Buck up. Your kid may hate the process, but – take it from a mama who knows – it’s much better than having to see your child strapped to a dental chair for hours.
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