It wasn't Shira Cullen's idea to bring her baby to the dentist; this Ashland mom made the appointment on the recommendation of her pediatrician. "Sophia has a little bit of decay on her upper teeth and her back molars," explains Shira. "I put her to bed with a bottle." Shira's a good, caring mother, but the bottle thing? "Somebody might have of mentioned it, but nobody emphasized it —'don't put your baby to bed with a bottle of milk or juice'— and now I really regret it," Shira says.

It wasn't Shira Cullen's idea to bring her baby to the dentist; this Ashland mom made the appointment on the recommendation of her pediatrician. "Sophia has a little bit of decay on her upper teeth and her back molars," explains Shira. "I put her to bed with a bottle." Shira's a good, caring mother, but the bottle thing? "Somebody might have of mentioned it, but nobody emphasized it —'don't put your baby to bed with a bottle of milk or juice'— and now I really regret it," Shira says.

As Shira found out, putting a baby to bed with a bottle or sippy cup filled with milk or juice lets the liquid pool in the mouth all night long. "Anything that has a fermentable carbohydrate, such as mother's milk, bovine milk or juice can cause tooth decay," warns Dr. Pamela Ortiz, Grins 4 Kidz's pediatric dentist.

Almost 20 percent of kids under the age of 3 have cavities according to the American Pediatrics Association and that's why the gold standard for dental care is to bring your baby to a pediatric dentist within six months of the first tooth, and certainly before the first birthday.

"By the time we see some kids, by the time they're 3, they've had such severe early childhood caries [decay] that we're having to remove or cap or fill almost every tooth in their mouth," says Dr. Ortiz. "Tooth decay is an infectious process, a disease process," she continues. "When a child's teeth decay, it can cause pain and nobody wants their child to be in pain." Worse, tooth decay affects nutrition and can cause infections in the oral cavity, sinuses and even the brain.

Early tooth decay is preventable and parents can help. Cleaning your baby's teeth twice a day, flossing and a good diet is essential. "If at any point they (your baby's teeth) don't seem clean, you need to see someone," advises Dr. David Alex, a Medford pediatric dentist.

A pediatric dentist has special training to work with babies and small children; even the dental chair and instruments are pint-sized. "You can't expect a one-year-old to hop into a chair," Dr. Ortiz explains. "So what we do is a lap-to-lap exam, we touch knees, we put a little pillow down and just lay the baby down in our laps. That way we can show the parents, they have a bird's eye view with the light and the mirror, exactly what's going on and how to brush their child's teeth."

Perhaps best of all, a pediatric dentist knows how to handle a crying baby.

"Sometimes moms think that because their baby cries when they brush their teeth, they think they're hurting them, they're afraid to brush their teeth," says Dr. Ortiz. "We know that that's normal for a baby. You're not hurting them, they're just expressing themselves."

Dr. Ortiz says that kids who start dental visits at age 1, will hop up into the chair by themselves when they're 2 or 3. Anna Cruz of Medford brought all three of her babies to Dr. Ortiz over the years. "They've never been scared," says Anna. Now, her 5-year-old daughter Stephanie is so relaxed that she sometimes falls asleep during cleanings.

On cue, shrieks fill the air, followed quickly by giggles, baby talk and clapping. Sophia, just 1 1/2; years old, toddles out of the examining room, with a great big grin on her face, her mother following closely behind.

Children with healthy teeth, growing beautiful smiles.