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Caring for Your Child's Teeth

Tips for helping your kids develop good dental habits that will last a lifetime.
By: Dr. Henry Bernstein

Caring for Your Child's Teeth

Protecting Those Pearly Whites

Your kids have million-dollar smiles. But how can you ensure that they keep those smiles well into adulthood? By taking care of their teeth and gums, of course! Although parents should be educated about proper dental health even before a child is born, there may be cultural, economic, and environmental factors that affect whether good dental habits are developed.

While many children go for periodic check-ups with their pediatrician or family doctor, many don't regularly visit with a dentist. Oral health is critically important. A dental professional helps prevent and correct common (and major) dental problems, including:

  • Caries (cavities)
  • Periodontal (gum) disease
  • Malocclusion (bad alignment)
  • Injury

    However, dental visits don't just identify and treat diseases -- they also promote overall dental health by identifying risk factors for dental disease.

    Dental Care Starts in Infancy

    Learning about your baby's dental health (e.g., fluoride supplementation, how teeth develop, habits that may affect tooth development) should begin during pregnancy. If you're planning to bottle feed:

  • Avoid putting the baby to sleep with the bottle.
  • Avoid propping the bottle in the baby's mouth, since this habit may harm an infant's teeth.
  • Be reassured that sucking does not harm teeth at this young age and is actually calming for an infant.
  • Gently swabbing the gums with a clean cloth will help prevent early tooth decay. Even though you can't see them, teeth are actively developing and need close attention.

    Visiting the Dentist

    The initial visit to a dentist should be around your child's first birthday, when she's making the transition from drinking from a bottle to a cup. Most kids get their first tooth by about six months of age, but some don't get them until after their first birthday. The dentist can intervene early if there are signs of decay and provide good advice to head off future dental problems.

    If your child doesn't see a dentist until her third birthday, the process of cavities may already be too far along! Prepare your child for a visit to the dentist by explaining what to expect. Tell your child that "the dentist will talk about your teeth first, and then look inside your mouth to see your gums and teeth."

    Taking Care of Your Baby's Teeth

    Although primary ("baby") teeth are temporary, they still require proper care, since they serve as placeholders for the permanent adult teeth. If a child loses his baby teeth due to cavities or injuries, he may need a space-maintaining appliance to prevent overcrowding of the permanent teeth.

    To care for a baby's teeth:

  • Clean them with a soft brush when the first tooth pops through the gums.

  • The mechanical act of brushing and rinsing is more effective than toothpaste at removing food and plaque.

  • Begin brushing a toddler's teeth with a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste after his first birthday.

  • Fluoride should only be given as recommended by a health professional because it's based on the level of fluoride in the infant's drinking water.

    Tips on Brushing and Flossing

    Start brushing your child's teeth early in life so that he develops a routine. As a parent you are your child's most powerful role model and need to set a good example by taking good care of your own teeth and gums. Kids under four or 5 years of age will continue to need help with brushing because they don't have the skills to do it themselves yet.

    Additional times for brushing after meals are a good idea. When your child turns four (when the back teeth are in contact with one another), you'll have to step-up the cleaning regimen. The following tips will be helpful:

  • Floss your child's teeth once a day at bedtime.

  • Kids should brush their teeth at least twice a day - it's best after breakfast and then about a half-hour before bed.

  • After brushing and flossing at bedtime, your child shouldn't eat or drink anything but water.

  • Once your child can brush her teeth on her own, you should still supervise the brushing to be sure she gets to all parts of the teeth and gums.

  • Children can learn how to floss on their own at age eight. It does take a bit of motor dexterity and coordination, although some kids may master this earlier.

    Helping your child learn a routine of good dental care will put him on the right track to prevent problems later. Good oral hygiene and the use of fluoride in low doses are the most effective ways to reduce the risk of cavities and gum disease.

    Dental sealant can prevent tooth decay where oral hygiene and fluoride can't reach. A low carbohydrate diet will help control the plaque-producing bacteria. For a child younger than two years old, try limiting exposure to saliva from adults or other children on utensils or pacifiers.

    You should also:

  • Know how to prevent dental injuries and how to handle dental emergencies like the loss or fracture of a tooth.

  • Be familiar with the normal appearance of teeth and the mouth, so you can identify problems if they occur.

  • Be aware that by age six, as kids become more involved in sports and the risk of oral injury increases, it's important to teach your child about the importance of sports safety. Your young athlete should wear protective sports gear such as a mouth guard and face protector.

  • Educate your child about the dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco. Any child already using tobacco must be encouraged to stop the habit.
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