An important component of all children’s overall health is their oral health. Cavities – sometimes called dental caries or tooth decay – are one of the most prevalent chronic children’s health conditions. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 suffer from one or more untreated, decaying tooth.
Tooth decay can cause pain and lead to a multitude of health and developmental problems. Untreated cavities can interfere with eating, talking and learning. Cavities can cause pain that may result in the child either missing school or having difficulty concentrating while in class. Tooth decay also leads to infections, some of which can be quite serious and even life-threatening.
“A child’s oral health is something every parent should focus on beginning in infancy,” explains Dr. Ann Liu. “Protecting your children’s teeth – both baby teeth and permanent teeth – is vital to their overall health and well-being. There are a number of steps every parent can take to protect their child’s oral health. Your pediatrician can help you get off to a good start.”
Good Oral Health Starts Early
Attention to oral health needs to begin at childbirth. Babies should have their gums wiped at least once a day with a cold baby washcloth, in order to keep the gums healthy. At no later than 6 months of age, babies should receive an oral examination from the pediatrician. Six months is also the age at which the first baby teeth usually begin to come in, although this can occur sooner or later.
When a baby is teething, they will sometimes, but not always, experience discomfort. Parents can help sooth their infant by massaging the gums with clean fingers; providing a cold, solid teething ring (never use one filled with liquid, as they can puncture); or a cold washcloth. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against over-the-counter gels and teething necklaces, which can pose a choking hazard. Occasionally, a slight fever is associated with teething, but if a temperature reaches 100° F, it is being caused by something else and you should get your child in to see the pediatrician.
Good toothbrushing habits should begin as soon as the first tooth appears. Children will need their parents’ help brushing for the first several years of their lives. The goal of brushing is to clean all sides of each tooth. The proper way to brush your child’s teeth evolves as they age:
At time of first tooth (usually around 6 months): you should begin brushing your child’s tooth or teeth using a baby toothbrush and a smear of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice. This should be done twice a day and following meals.
At age 3: increase the amount of toothpaste to pea-size. When your child is old enough, teach him or her to spit out the toothpaste following brushing.
Even once children are able to hold a toothbrush and do the brushing themselves, you should continue to put the toothpaste on the brush yourself to ensure they don’t use too much and assist as needed until age 6. They will probably still need your help in getting all parts of the teeth clean. The goal of brushing is to remove the plaque that builds up on the teeth and contains the bacteria that lead to cavities.
Continue to observe your child brushing until age 7 or 8. Once a child can write his or her name well, he or she should be able to brush without supervision.
The Importance of Fluoride
Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay. In addition to using a toothpaste with fluoride, there are other important steps parents can take to provide fluoride protection for their children’s teeth.
“In most parts of the country, including in North Texas, our tap water contains fluoride,” explains Dr. Ron Blair. “Giving your children a small amount of tap water with or following meals is an effective and easy way to increase their defenses against tooth decay. Note that bottled water typically does not contain fluoride, so it’s important children drink tap water.”
A fluoride varnish is another important tool to protect against tooth decay. The fluoride varnish should be applied as soon as the first tooth appears and continue until age 5. Dentists apply fluoride varnishes, as do many pediatricians. Privia Medical Group North Texas pediatricians at Forest Lane Pediatrics offer fluoride varnishes for their patients up to age 3.
Ideally, parents should schedule an appointment with a pediatric dentist for their child by age 1. Your pediatrician can help you find a provider in your area.
Common Causes of Cavities
Taking steps to prevent cavities from developing in children is an important part of healthy childhood. “Sometimes people will wrongly assume cavities in baby teeth don’t really matter, since those teeth will eventually fall out,” says Dr. Liu. “That’s not true – if a child has cavities in their baby teeth, they are more likely to also develop them in their permanent teeth. Additionally, baby teeth that end up getting pulled due to cavities can result in the remaining baby teeth shifting and negatively affecting how the adult teeth come in.”
Tooth decay results when the sugars in food and drink are converted to acid by the natural bacteria that live inside the mouth. These bacteria reside in plaque, a type of buildup on our teeth. The acid the bacteria produce eats away at the outer parts of the teeth. Any type of food or liquid, other than water and breast milk, can trigger this process. Regulating the types of foods and liquids that are consumed is an important part of fighting cavities.
Baby-Bottle Tooth Decay
The leading cause of tooth decay in young children is known as baby-bottle tooth decay. “Putting your child down for a nap or for the night with a bottle greatly increases the risk of cavities,” explains Dr. Lily Strong. “The sugars from milk, formula or juice will coat your child’s teeth all night long, greatly increasing the risk of decay. Even if they are not sleeping, it is best to limit your child’s use of bottles and sippy cups once the baby teeth begin to come in. Don’t allow your child to use a bottle or sippy cup as a pacifier, which results in the child’s teeth being continuously coated in cavity-causing liquids.”
In addition to causing tooth decay, putting a baby to bed with a bottle or sippy cup is a choking hazard and can increase the risk of ear infections. Parents should teach their children to drink from a regular cup as soon as possible, ideally by or soon after the first birthday.
Easy on the Sugar
“Sugar is also a major cause of cavities,” says Dr. Strong. “As children are usually drawn to sweet foods, it takes discipline and hard work on the parents’ part to ensure their child is not consuming too much sugar.”
Don’t allow your child to have all the sweets he or she wants. Reserve treats such as ice cream, cookies and candy for special occasions. Don’t serve sugary cereals and snacks. It’s best to completely avoid sweet foods that will stick to the teeth, such as toffee, caramel, dried fruit snacks and chewing gum.
In addition, parents should help their children avoid certain drinks altogether: soft drinks, fruit punch, sports drinks and even natural fruit juice are all loaded with sugar and are major contributors to tooth decay. They are also significant drivers of childhood obesity.
Just as limited screen time is important to keeping your child physically active and at a healthy weight, it can be important for oral health, as well. Studies have shown that children are very receptive to television ads promoting sugary cereals or other sweet foods. Limiting how often your child is exposed to this type of advertising can make a parent’s job of promoting healthy eating easier.
Healthy Teeth, Healthy Child
Oral health is a key part of every child’s overall health. By promoting good oral health beginning at birth, parents can reduce their child’s risk of tooth decay that causes pain, can interfere with the development of permanent teeth and may lead to dangerous infections. By instilling healthy drinking and eating habits at an early age, and then emphasizing the importance of good toothbrushing, we can provide children with the best defenses against cavities. Finally, with regular examinations by pediatricians and pediatric dentists, any problems can be detected and treated quickly.
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