Kids who suffer from untreated tooth decay may experience many related health issues.
Their inability to consume healthy foods or beverages without experiencing mouth pain can lead to poor nutrition habits, resulting in low weight and height. They may also have trouble sleeping at night because of mouth pain, and may remain unfocused during the day due in part to lack of sleep.
Here are ways to protect your kids’ teeth.
1 Don’t spread cavities
Cavities are an infection. Specific germs in the mouth make acid from foods containing sugars. The acid produced within 20 minutes of eating remains on tooth surfaces unless it is rinsed or brushed off . The acid can go deeper into the surface of the tooth during the night when saliva, which would help rinse the teeth, is not made.
Adults can spread these germs, so avoid sharing pre-chewed foods or eating utensils with your kids. Transmission of germs is highest between a mother and child when a child is between 7 and 24 months of age.
2 Make mouth care a daily routine
Mouth care begins in infancy. Daily personal care includes washing all parts of the body, including the mouth. This sets a crucial daily care routine in motion. After feedings in the morning and night, wipe the gums and tongue with a clean, wet cloth.
3 Brush the teeth, gums and tongue
Baby teeth begin to come in around six months of age. Brush them once they come up through the gum, with a finger or a small infant brush.
Brushing takes coordination. Young kids need help to reach inside upper and lower back teeth. A soft, child-size brush should be slowly circled over the surface of the tooth and the gum. Brush the tongue and all surfaces of each tooth: the front, the back and the top. Cleaning all the teeth well takes approximately two minutes.
Toothbrushes cannot get between teeth that are close together. Remove trapped food by flossing. To floss properly, gently run the floss down the side of the tooth to the gum line and then up along the opposite tooth, bringing the matter up and out. Flossing can be difficult even for adults, but child flossers can make it easier and more fun.
Kids need to learn self-care. Offer choices: “Time to clean your teeth. Do you want to use the blue brush or the electric brush?” If children resist using a brush, offer a soft wash. With this approach, teeth get cleaned and your kids get to make the choice.
4 Always use toothpaste
Toothpaste for kids may or may not have fluoride, which has been shown to help strengthen the surface of teeth against acid. Use only a small dab. When a child is able to spit well, use a rinse with fluoride.
5 Choose tooth-friendly foods
Healthy foods are important for children’s health. Some food choices are less tooth-friendly than others. Foods or snacks high in sugar give germs a chance to make more acid. Remember that diluted drinks also still contain sugar. When given in a bottle or sippy cup throughout the day, they send a continuous sugar supply to germs. Limit full-strength liquids or sweets, and serve them only at snack or meal times.
Diet soda contains no sugar, but has high amounts of citric acid, which is even more damaging to teeth. Water from the tap is the best choice for your children.
Sticky foods stay until removed. After eating, if brushing is not possible, have your children take a sip of water and swish kids can use sugar-free xylitol gum or mints. Xylitol is a natural sugar that germs cannot use to make acid. Chewing gum or a mint produces saliva, which cleans the mouth. Use of xylitol products also is recognized to be safe and effective in helping pregnant women clean their teeth after snacking.
6 Remove sweetened medications from teeth
Liquid medicine is sweetened to make it tastier. Some medicines cause dry mouth, which can cause problems with kids’ teeth or gums. Ask your provider if the medicines your child takes could affect the mouth. Confirm it’s okay to drink water after taking medicines, to remove any sugar.
7 Prevent damage and tooth loss
Five million teeth are knocked out each year, mostly during sports. Mouth guards, which help prevent this type of accident, are available in sports stores or from your dentist. Athletic teams should include tooth-saving solutions in their first-aid kits that preserve a knocked-out tooth until emergency dental care is available.
8 Begin dental care before problems occur
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a medical and dental home for all children. Kids should have a dental visit for preventive care as soon as their teeth come in. Early care helps kids feel comfortable with the provider, learn about keeping teeth healthy and receive preventive treatments. Schedule dental visits twice a year.
9 Have preventive treatments to protect your children’s teeth
Fluoride varnish is a mineral that is applied to teeth to strengthen the surface against acid. Absorbed in a few days, it can be applied two or three times a year.
Some primary care providers now apply fluoride varnish during child well visits. These fluoride treatments should not replace your children’s dental visits, but they are used to increase protection with high-disease risk.
Sealants are a protective coating put on deep ridges and grooves of back chewing teeth and molars. They stay on the teeth for several years, protecting from acid. Your child’s dental provider can tell you more about both of these protective treatments.
10 Be a role model for oral health
Kids do what they see you do. Show your kids that oral health matters. Choose tooth-friendly foods and beverages, drink tap water, and brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly.
Diane Limbo, MSN, CPNP, is a certified PNP and Director of Health Integration with Healthy Smiles For Kids of Orange County, CA.