Better Dental Health for Children

By Dr. Monika Singer

Parents can, and should, play a very early and active role in establishing good oral health for their child. This includes understanding the role that diet plays in tooth decay, and even helping their child brush their teeth, as most children lack the manual dexterity to do it properly themselves.

Cavities happen even at the earliest stages of development as bacteria in the mouth comes into contact with sugar or simple carbohydrates. This produces acid that attacks the teeth. Bacteria can be transmitted from caregiver to child, so it’s important to avoid sharing utensils between caregivers and children to avoid transmission of any cavity-causing bacteria.

One of the biggest misconceptions about early childhood care is that a child’s baby teeth don’t really matter because they will eventually fall out. While this may in fact be the case, baby teeth help a child learn to eat independently, develop proper speech enunciation, and they help hold proper space in the mouth for when adult teeth are ready to erupt.

Parents also need to be vigilant about seemingly innocent early childhood activities that can affect a child’s dental health. For example, pacifiers and thumb sucking can have negative effects on the alignment of teeth and the development of a child’s mouth. It is essential that children break these early development habits before their permanent teeth start coming in, ideally before the age of four.

Placing an infant in bed with a pacifying milk bottle puts the child at risk of early childhood tooth decay. Try to ensure that the child has finished their milk bottle before the end of their day. Do not put him or her into bed with a bottle that has anything other than water in it. Good oral hygiene for every child should start almost immediately after birth. For infants, you can wipe their gum pads after a meal with a soft clean washcloth moistened with water only. Also check under the upper lip regularly for signs of tooth decay. If you see anything that looks suspicious, take him or her to see a dentist.

Growing children should drink plenty of water during the day instead of high sugar juices. Snacking on foods that are high in carbohydrates can also contribute to cavities. These foods tend to be sticky and get stuck on teeth. When choosing family snacks, stick to healthy choices like fruits and vegetables and ensure your child is eating a well-balanced diet comprised of all the food groups.

A baby’s first dental visit should occur shortly after the first tooth erupts, or before their first birthday. On the child’s first visit, the dentist will discuss important topics with parents that include proper daily oral hygiene at home, any current habits (pacifiers, thumb sucking) that the child may have, and the role of diet in tooth decay. An exam of the mouth will be completed, and the child can even sit on the parent’s lap to feel more comfortable. It is important to start bringing your child to the dental office regularly so that they start feeling relaxed and do not harbor any unfounded fears.

Once this first tooth has erupted, babies and toddlers should have their teeth brushed before bed, and brushed at least one other time during the day. If a toddler under the age of three is considered high risk for cavities, then a small amount (the size of a grain of rice) of fluoridated toothpaste can be used.

When a child is over the age of three, they should be using fluoridated toothpaste. For children that have their baby molars, or have any other teeth touching each other, flossing of these teeth is also important. Again, children need to have an adult brush their teeth for them at least twice per day for at least two minutes, and all the fluoridated toothpaste left in the mouth should be spit out and not swallowed.