Past studies have found that most infants do not have detectable amounts of Streptococcus mutans until their teeth come in, between 6 months and 2 ½ years old because this bacterium likes to cling to hard surfaces. But the newest data indicates that it can also colonize on other oral surfaces, such as the tongue, and that this can occur much earlier than they previously thought! Then it waits for an opportunity to wreak havoc…
Streptococcus mutans is a bacterium that is one of the main villains responsible for tooth decay. It is one of many bacteria that make up plaque and, when exposed to sugar, produces an acid that erodes tooth enamel. The more S. mutans there are in a mouth, the greater the chance for tooth decay.
Babies “Catch” S. mutans
“Vertical transmission” is a fancy term used to describe how mothers or primary caregivers pass the bacteria to babies. Mothers, primary caregivers, and sometimes fathers have been found to be the #1 source from which babies get S. mutans. Scientists have been able to genotype (determine the genetic makeup of a cell) the bacteria and match it to the mother or caregiver.
Spread the Love = Spread the Bacteria
Spreading oral bacteria occurs through “saliva-sharing” activities:
- Letting your baby put his hand in your mouth and then his own
- Sharing utensils, cups, foods, toothbrushes, etc. (anything that you put in your mouth and then your baby’s)
- Blowing on food to cool it
- Cleaning a pacifier or bottle by licking it
- Pre-chewing your baby’s food
- Kissing your baby on the mouth
These are things that everyone does without thinking about it. Spreading bacteria is unavoidable but you can reduce the amount you pass on by reducing the number of times that you do it. Limiting and/or eliminating some of the above-listed activities will cut down on the buildup of S. mutans in your baby’s mouth.
Too Much of Anything is Bad
Everyone has bacteria in their mouth, it is part of the “oral eco-system” and in a healthy mouth, there is a natural balance. The problems occur when there is an imbalance, allowing bacteria to multiply.
Studies have found that the amount of S. mutans in a baby’s mouth is proportional to the amount in the mother’s mouth. Mothers with poor oral health pass on much more bacteria than the mothers who take care of their teeth. This can result in Early Childhood Caries and lead to lifelong health problems for the child. For more information on ECC please read our earlier posts: Early Childhood Caries (ECC) Part 1 and Part 2 .
Good Moms Take Care of Themselves
It’s very easy to neglect yourself when caring for your family. The demands on your time can be overwhelming but you must take the time to care for your dental hygiene not only for your sake but also for your baby’s.
A mom’s dental hygiene program should include:
- Brushing & flossing twice a day
- A healthy diet
- Regular dental checkups and treatment when needed
- Chewing Xylitol gum (studies show that Xylitol slows down the buildup of plaque)
Bacteria Spreads Like Gossip
Before you go booking your guilt trip, you need to know that moms aren’t the only culprits. S. mutans is spread “horizontally” as well by other family members and playmates, through swapping spit. Young children have an oral fixation and everything (like toys) goes into their mouths!
Talk to your child’s daycare/pre-school about ways to prevent “saliva-sharing” activities. Not only will that help cut down on colds, but it will also help limit your child’s exposure to S. mutans.
One Factor in the Development of Tooth Decay
“Catching” S. mutans is the first step in your child’s potential development of tooth decay. By reducing the amount of bacteria your child acquires, you can reduce his chances for getting cavities later on. That, along with limiting exposure to sugar and practicing good dental hygiene, will help ensure your child’s healthy smile.
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