Tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Early childhood cavities are more common than asthma, early childhood obesity and diabetes.
That’s the bad news.
But the good news, says Isabelle Chase, DDS, associate in the Department of Dentistry at Boston Children’s Hospital, is that dental cavities are entirely preventable. Even if your child has a history of dental cavities, her future smile can turn bright with these expert tips for life-long healthy mouth habits.
Brush twice a day.
Chase emphasizes the importance of brushing the teeth twice a day. “The main goal is to reduce the bacteria in the mouth and keep the gums clean. It’s not just about the teeth—healthy gums help our mouths feel good and help protect our teeth.” She recommends assisting young children, and reminding older kids, to brush all surfaces. For young children, make sure to lift the lip and pull back the cheeks to get to those tough-to-reach places.
Don’t fear fluoride.
Fluoride is one of the most effective methods for strengthening teeth and preventing cavities, according to Chase. Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally around the world, including in our water. Fortifying water with additional fluoride is a safe and effective way to ensure that all children receive fluoride. The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates and monitors water, following set standards for contaminants. Rigorous research has shown that fluoride-supplemented water and products are effective in preventing dental cavities and not associated with adverse health effects when used appropriately.
One potential condition, called fluorosis, affects a small percentage of children who have ingested too much fluoride. This can discolor and alter the surface of the tooth but is not painful or damaging to a child’s health.
Following the recommended guidelines can prevent fluorosis. Chase recommends using a rice-sized smear of fluoridated toothpaste for children less than 3 years of age, and a pea- sized amount for children 3-6. Ingesting very small amounts of fluoride is not harmful, but it’s important to adhere to the age-appropriate guidelines.
When a child’s teeth begin to touch closer together, usually around four years old, flossing practice should begin. Help your child by showing her how to wrap the floss around the tooth like a ‘c’ while gently pushing down to the gum line. Chase says disposable floss sticks are okay to use at this stage, but recommends parental assistance to avoid overly forceful flossing, which can cause small cuts and irritation to the gums.
Follow the “rule of five” (or 3+2).
Chase strongly recommends sticking to three meals and two snacks a day for optimal dental health. A major contributing factor to tooth decay is frequent snacking or grazing. Many parents associate sugary treats with cavity formation, but they are not the only culprit. Starchy foods, including snacks like pretzels and crackers, also contain sugars that can increase tooth decay. Chase also recommends limiting juice to 4 oz. a day, encouraging water and plain milk instead, and putting only water in bedtime bottles or sippy cups.
Get regular dental check-ups (even for children with baby teeth).
Early and regular dental check-ups are one of the best ways to ensure your child maintains healthy teeth. “If you wait until the child has a problem,” says Chase, “the child will never have the benefit of an easy visit. Start your child at the dentist early, establish a dental home by her first birthday, and we can help prevent dental cavities before they begin.”
Chase stresses that it truly is possible, even if your child has had a history of dental cavities, to turn her oral health around. “Ultimately, it comes down to what’s done at home. Follow the “rule of five” for eating and snacking; help your kids brush with a fluoridated toothpaste; and encourage water and plain milk over juice. It’s hard to make those changes, but keep taking baby steps. Cavities can be prevented and stopped if they have already started. We really do see this turn around.”