Since the state of your children’s teeth and gums reflects their overall health, it’s important to establish good dental care as early as possible. However, if you have not already done so, it’s never too late to begin.
Tooth decay remains one of the most common diseases of childhood. It is five times as common as asthma and seven times as common as hay fever, but you can avoid cavities with some preventative measures.
Tooth enamel undergoes a constant process of mineralization and demineralization. As long as there is a balance between the two processes, teeth remain healthy. Various factors — such as bacteria and sugar — may disrupt this balance and create an environment conducive to dental disease.
Bacteria that contribute to dental disease ferment sugars and create an acidic environment in the mouth that leads to cavity formation and unhealthy gums. Studies show that inflammation caused by unhealthy gums may result in heart disease and stroke. Therefore, teaching your kids to take good care of their teeth early on is in their best interest.
Strategies to prevent dental disease follow.
Start Dental Care Early
Dental care should start right after your baby is born. After feedings, wipe your infant’s mouth clean with a wet washcloth. Avoid bathing your baby’s teeth in formula by not letting her fall asleep while drinking a bottle. Introduce your baby to a sippy cup at six months, and wean her off a bottle after the first birthday.
Avoid Sharing Germs
Certain bacteria, such as streptococcus mutans, are associated with cavity formation. Strong evidence exists that an important factor linked to increased cavity risk in young kids is recent or current presence of dental disease in their caregivers. Bacteria responsible for tooth decay are transferred through saliva when sharing utensils, blowing on food or kissing children on the mouth.
Decrease Sugar Exposure
Sugar is a critical risk factor for the development of tooth decay. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the following factors place your child at high risk for cavities: continual bottle or sippy cup use, sleeping with a bottle containing fluids other than water, frequent sugary snacks and beverages, cooked starch and the frequent intake of sugared medications.
Teach Your Child Good Dental Care
Brushing teeth twice a day and flossing regularly are crucial to maintaining a cavity-free mouth. Teach your child to floss as soon as she is able to understand directions and she has adequate fine motor skills. Studies show that brushing teeth alone removes only 40 percent of food that sticks to them. Without flossing, your child’s teeth will succumb to cavities and bad breath fairly quickly.
Dentists caution that diets full of carbonated beverages and juice, as well as acidic foods, soften the tooth enamel and contribute to its permanent erosion — and brushing immediately after consuming these foods and beverages may permanently damage the soft enamel. Therefore, teach your kids not to brush immediately after a meal, especially when it includes acidic foods, but instead wait 30 to 60 minutes before brushing. Also, using an over-the-counter pediatric toothpaste can help re-harden softened enamel.
Be a Role Model
As a parent, you play a crucial role in helping your kids develop a good dental hygiene routine. You should lead and supervise your child’s brushing, schedule regular dental check-ups, and show your child that you take care of your own teeth because it is important for health.
See a Pediatric Dentist
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, your baby should see a dentist after her first birthday. Seeing a pediatric dentist is best, as pediatric dentists are pediatricians of dentistry who specialize in treating infants, children and adolescents. Usually a check-up every six months is recommended, depending upon your child’s dental health needs.
Don’t Forget Fluoride
According to the AAP, fluoride is effective in cavity prevention in children. The AAP issued the following recommendations for fluoride use.
* Fluoridated toothpaste is recommended for all children starting at tooth eruption, regardless of caries risk.
* A smear (the size of a grain of rice) of toothpaste should be used up to age three. After the third birthday, a pea-sized amount may be used. Parents should dispense toothpaste for young children and supervise and assist with brushing.
* Fluoride varnish is recommended in the primary care setting every three to six months starting at tooth emergence.
* Over-the-counter fluoride rinse is not recommended for children younger than six years due to risk of swallowing higher-than-recommended levels of fluoride.
Dental sealants protect the grooved and pitted surfaces of the teeth, especially the chewing surfaces of back teeth where most cavities in kids are found.
It is difficult for children to be able to brush the tiny groves on back teeth well, and food particles and bacteria build up in that area, which increases the risk for tooth decay.
Research shows that dental sealants can last for many years if properly cared for. The application is painless and done in only one visit. The teeth are cleaned, conditioned and dried. Then the sealant is flowed onto the grooves and allowed to harden. Your child will be able to eat right after the appointment.
Monika B. Pis, PhD, CPNP, is a pediatric primary care clinician in Jupiter, FL.