True or false: Because baby teeth fall out early in life, kids don’t need to get serious about dental health until their permanent teeth start coming in.
The answer is FALSE—and that’s exactly the kind of teeth your child could end up with if you don’t take dental health seriously from an early age. Did you know children who develop cavities early in life are at a far greater risk of having cavities in their adult teeth? Cavities can mean a lifetime of mouth pain and expensive dental work, and can even lead to serious medical concerns like diabetes and heart problems.
To ensure that your child grows up to have a healthy, happy smile, the best offense is a good defense. Here are a few ways to promote healthy teeth in young children:
Brush children’s teeth as soon as they come in. Using children’s toothpaste with fluoride, start brushing a child’s budding teeth and gums the moment a tooth comes in. Don’t worry about baby’s mouth being too sensitive—if they’re old enough to grow a tooth, they’re old enough to have it brushed.
Brush your preschoolers’ teeth for them. Just because children are old enough to put toothpaste on a brush and place it in their mouth, doesn’t mean they can scrub well enough to get rid of plaque. Parents should be brushing kids’ teeth for them until they are about 6 years old to make sure that a thorough job is done. Try standing behind the child when you brush, using your free hand to move the lips and cheeks out of the way when needed.
Use fluoride toothpaste. Skip the training toothpaste. It is safe and cost-effective to use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste for your infant and toddler, even if he or she cannot spit it out just yet.
Skip the final rinse. Toothpaste with fluoride in it actually works better if your child skips the final mouth rinse after brushing. The more time the fluoride has to sit on the teeth, the better it works, so have your child skip the final rinse and give the fluoride enough time to do its work.
Look out for “secret” cavity causers. Fruit juices are seen as healthy beverages for kids, but many contain acids and as much sugar as soda. For this reason, allow no more than 4 oz of juice per day, and only serve it at mealtimes. Diluting the juice is not the answer since it is the frequency of exposure that is the risk. And while snacks like crackers and chips don’t have a lot of sugar in them, they leave tiny crumbs that cause plaque. Brushing after snacks is important, even if overly sugary treats weren’t on the menu.
Avoid “grazing.” When kids have constant access to snacks—called grazing—it increases their exposure to sugars, starches and acids produced by oral bacteria. Unless a child needs constant access to food for medical reasons, grazing should be avoided.
Allow candy only on special occasions. Consider letting children eat as much as they want on Valentine’s day and other sweets themed holidays, then get rid of the leftovers. Avoid gummies, fruit roll-ups and gummy vitamins, which stick in the pits and grooves and between teeth.
Try xylitol candies and chewing gum. Xylitol is a natural sugar that stops the growth of the bacteria responsible for cavities, and acts as a substitute for more sugar-laden gums and suckers.
Good brushing and flossing is important, but even the cleanest teeth can develop problems. Here are a few dental issues parents need to be aware of, even if their child is cavity-free.
Look out for TMJ. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ), the joint that connects the jaw to the skull and helps us open and close our mouths, is the most commonly used joint in our bodies. Excessive grinding or clenching of the teeth can cause TMJ dysfunction, leading to jaw pain, earaches and an inability to open or close the mouth properly. If your child’s tooth grinding or clenching is affecting his or her jaw function, ask your doctor about speaking with a maxillofacial surgeon.
Be smart about wisdom teeth. Wisdom teeth are the last permanent teeth to develop, but sometimes there’s not enough room left in the mouth for them to fit properly. When this happens, wisdom teeth can become impacted, leading to pain, gum disease and crowding of other teeth. As your children hit their teenage years, make sure they pay special attention when brushing the back of the mouth, and get in the habit of asking their dentist about wisdom teeth development and removal.
If your child has problems with his or her teeth and is in need of treatment, please visit Boston Children’s department of Dentistry’s webpage and/or the department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery’s webpage.