When should my child first see a dentist? When should my child start brushing? How early is too early to start thinking about children’s dental care? What can I do to make sure my child establishes good oral health habits at an early age?
These are some of the questions I often hear from parents in our dental clinic. The answers might surprise you.
You may not know that dental caries, also known as “cavities,” is actually an infectious disease caused by bacteria called Streptococcus Mutans. The bacteria cause cavities by breaking down sugars in the mouth to create acid that attacks tooth enamel. These bacteria are primarily transmitted within the family unit, most commonly between mother and child. So caring for the oral health of the entire family is critical to breaking the cycle of dental decay.
That means that your child’s healthy smile depends on you. By getting regular dental care yourself, both before and after the birth of your child, you can reduce or prevent the transmission of these harmful bacteria within the family.
Since there is a relationship between a mother’s oral health, her physical health and her baby’s development, it’s just as important that pregnant moms have healthy dental hygiene habits and get regular dental care during pregnancy.
As parents, we can model good oral hygiene for our children by brushing our own teeth twice a day, flossing daily, eating a healthy diet and getting regular dental check-ups.
It’s never too early to start caring for your child’s teeth. The American Dental Association recommends that you:
▪ Start by taking care of their gums. By cleaning your infant’s gums with a moist cloth or a soft toothbrush, you can help prevent the harmful bacteria from getting established.
▪ Start brushing when teeth emerge. Brush your baby’s teeth with a soft toothbrush and a small amount of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice. Children should brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and can begin flossing at age 2. Supervise your child’s brushing, and always make sure your child uses his or her own toothbrush. Sharing toothbrushes can spread the bacteria that cause cavities.
▪ Take your children to a dentist when teeth first emerge or at their first birthday, whichever comes first. A dentist can do an examination to ensure that any problems are detected and treated early.
▪ Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride and sealants. Sealants are protective coatings that are placed on permanent molars. They can prevent 80 percent of cavities in the back teeth, where 9 out of 10 cavities occur. Fluoride varnish, a concentrated form of fluoride that is painted on teeth, can lower tooth decay by about one-third. The combination of fluoride varnish applications and daily brushing with a fluoride toothpaste results in less tooth decay.
▪ Shift your child from a bottle to a cup by age 1. Don’t let your baby fall asleep with a bottle. Milk, formula, juice, pop or breast milk left on your child’s teeth overnight can lead to cavities. If you give your baby a bottle in bed, make sure it only has water in it. Encourage your child to start using a sippy cup at 6 months old, and wean your child from bottles to sippy cups at 1 year old.
▪ Help your child avoid sugary drinks and snacks. Limit juice and soda. The best liquids for your child to drink are water and low-fat or non-fat milk. Instead of chips, pretzels, crackers, candy or other snacks high in sugars and starches, help your child choose fruits, vegetables, nuts or other healthy snacks. When children do have a sugary treat, encourage them to brush or rinse their teeth with water immediately after eating.
Following these tips can help protect your child’s smile and set your child on the path to healthy dental care habits that will last a lifetime.
Dr. Carrie Shane is dental director at Unity Care NW.