A few months after delivering my first son, I headed into my annual dental appointment, expecting a cleaning and a fun new toothbrush.
Instead, I got way more than I bargained for—12 cavities, to be exact. I thought I misheard the dentist, as I’d never had a cavity in my life, and value dental health and treatment as part of my regular self-care routine. As it would turn out, however, pregnant women are actually at a higher risk for tooth decay, pregnancy gingivitis, tooth pain, and other oral health concerns.
Here’s what I learned about tooth pain during pregnancy, how growing a human can affect your teeth, and how to protect your pearly whites.
How Pregnancy Affects Your Teeth
After my dental appointment, I felt tricked. As a well-read parenting journalist, why hadn’t this issue come up before?
I hadn’t read a single article on it, or heard one friend complaining. Now, not only had I just endured a 28-hour medicine-free childbirth, physical recovery, learning how to breastfeed, and pumping when I was back to work, but I was part of a secret club of women with dental issues after their pregnancies. I grouchily scheduled four sessions of teeth drilling to get everything cleaned up, because the damage was “too extensive” to do all at once. Ouch.
But still, I chalked my oral health woes up to a fluke and went about my life, relieved when my teeth were back to normal after all those dentist appointments. Pregnant soon after with my second son, I ensured I flossed, brushed, used mouth wash, and limited sugar to prevent the same thing from happening.
In I marched—proud of my efforts this time around—to my post-pregnancy dental appointment and there it was again. Six more cavities.
Unfortunately, the pattern continued through my third and fourth pregnancies as well. And since then, I’ve learned that, as the American Dental Association explains, pregnancy can affect your teeth, thanks to a variety of pregnancy-related factors:
Behavior Changes. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the behavioral changes that some pregnant people might have could put them at increased risk for cavities. For instance, they may be eating different foods than they normally do, like increased carbs or sugary sodas that help quell a queasy stomach. I mean, I definitely ate my fair share of crackers and Sprite during a nauseating first trimester, so I guess it makes sense.
Pregnancy Gingivitis. Aside from cavities, Dr. Lisa Creaven, Co-Founder and Director of Communication of Spotlight Oral Care, says that around half of women experience pregnancy gingivitis, which can result in bleeding, red, or swollen inflammation of the gums.
Pregnancy Hormones. Yup, you guessed it—according to Dr. Creaven, hormone changes in your body due to pregnancy can affect gum health.
Increased Stomach Acid. Thanks to a combination of said pregnancy hormones and the increased pressure from your ever-expanding uterus, many women experience an increase in heartburn during their pregnancies. All of that increase in stomach acid traveling upwards can impact your teeth and put you at risk for cavities.
Are Cavities Dangerous to Your Baby? Of course, I stressed about whether my cavities—like other infections in the body—could impact my baby’s health. Dr. Creaven says while some risk is present, the infection would have to be a significant one. The CDC also reports that one in four women of childbearing age has untreated cavities, and that bacteria from cavities can be transmitted from mom to baby.
All that boils down to this advice: be sure to see a dentist during your pregnancy. And if you are experiencing any tooth pain during pregnancy, schedule a dental check-up as well.
“If you have any pains or concerns with your teeth while pregnant, it’s important you see your dentist,” Dr. Creaven tells Truly Mama. “You might not be able to have every dental treatment but you can have any issues managed while you’re pregnant to avoid any risk to baby.”
Even better, if your pregnancies are planned, make sure you get any dental treatments done in the months leading up to trying to conceive if possible. Routine X-rays and other dental procedures are typically avoided during pregnancy, so going before you can conceive can reveal any underlying issues.
How to Protect Your Teeth During Pregnancy
So what’s a pregnant mom to do in light of a dental dilemma? Creaven’s tips for maintaining oral care as a key part of prenatal care include:
- For sore gums and inflammation, use toothpaste that specifically targets that issue to reduce swelling, pain, and soreness.
- Use a sonic toothbrush to ensure you are “getting a really good clean and avoiding plaque buildup.”
- Brush twice per day for two minutes with clinically-proven active ingredients.
- If you are vomiting, rinse your mouth out after each time and wait an hour after vomiting to brush your teeth as your teeth may be softened from the acid in your stomach.
- Floss daily.
- Use alcohol-free mouthwash—”Alcohol is not an ideal ingredient to rinse with every day as it is carcinogenic and also is very drying on the oral tissues,” she adds.
- Eat a balanced diet and avoid sugary snacks and acidic drinks.
When I found out I had that many cavities, I felt shame, on top of the typical mom guilt that already comes with parenting a new baby. After digging into the reasons why it happens, it made me wish more dentists would alert their patients to these risks as they start their pregnancies, and that more moms would talk about their experiences.
Maybe my few Sprites a week really did this, or maybe stomach acid was to blame. Either way, take my lesson to heart and be sure to schedule a dental visit as soon as you find out you are pregnant—and continue to get regular cleanings throughout your pregnancy.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a tooth or gum infection harm my unborn baby?
Yes. Some studies have linked poor oral health to premature birth (a baby born before 37 weeks). Pregnancy gingivitis can lead to a more serious condition called periodontitis, which involves bone loss and has been linked to premature births and lower birth weight.
Can I get a dental X-ray while pregnant?
Dr. Creaven says that a patient and their dentist have to decide if the risk is worth it based on the condition the patient has, but that typically, X-rays aren’t a part of prenatal dental care.
Brushing my teeth makes me gag – thanks morning sickness! – can I just use mouthwash instead?
Using mouthwash cannot replace good oral hygiene and brushing twice a day is an important part of maintaining your oral health during pregnancy and beyond, Creaven says. “Morning sickness can make your gag reflex extra sensitive,” she adds. “We would advise taking deep breaths through your nose which helps reduce the urge to gag.”
She also says not to force yourself to try it until you’ve eaten or nausea has eased up and trying a toothbrush with a smaller head may help.