It’s never too soon to prevent tooth decay
BY MONIKA PIS, PHD, CPNP
*First published in Fall 2011/Winter 2012
You have probably heard about the importance of establishing good dental care for your children early on, as the health of their teeth and gums reflects their overall well-being.
Tooth decay remains one of the most common diseases of childhood. It’s five times as widespread as asthma and seven times as common as hay fever.
The mouth is full of bacteria, most of them harmless. They can be kept under control by the body’s natural defenses coupled with routine dental care. However, if harmful bacteria get out of control, health problems — such as tooth decay and gum disease — may begin. Gum disease, dental procedures that cut the gums or vigorous tooth brushing may allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream, and then travel to various organs and cause disease.
Research suggests that heart disease and stroke might result from chronic inflammation caused by the bacteria of gum disease. In addition, scientists suggest that tooth loss before age 35 may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, teaching your children to take care of their teeth from the start is in their best interest!
When to Begin
From the time of the first tooth eruption, you need to take care of your children’s teeth to keep them healthy. Preventing tooth decay should start right after birth. Here are tips for keeping your baby’s mouth healthy:
❉ During bottle feedings, hold your infant and the bottle instead of letting the baby hold the bottle.
❉ Avoid bathing your baby’s teeth in formula by not letting him fall asleep when drinking a bottle.
❉ Never try to encourage sucking by dipping pacifiers in sugar or in other sweet substances.
❉ Introduce your baby to a sippy cup at six months old, and wean her off the bottle right after her first birthday.
When the first tooth erupts, clean it with a wet washcloth or a soft toothbrush and water or baby toothpaste after each feeding. Adult toothpastes contain fluoride, and they are not recommended for children until they learn to spit them out. Avoid letting your child use your toothpaste, because swallowing the fluoride will cause permanent white spots on the teeth.
Oral Care Basics
Teach your child to floss as soon as she is able to understand directions and has adequate fine motor skills to begin flossing. Studies show that brushing teeth alone removes only about 40 percent of food that sticks to them. Without daily flossing, your child’s teeth will succumb to cavities and bad breath fairly quickly.
Brushing teeth twice daily and flossing regularly are crucial to maintaining a cavity-free mouth. However, experts say that doing so may not be enough. Dentists caution that diets full of carbonated beverages and juice contribute to acid erosion of tooth enamel. Even healthy diets can be full of acidic foods high in ascorbic acid — such as citrus fruits, berries and juice — that softens enamel.
An acidic environment in the mouth is a breeding ground for the bacteria responsible for breaking down carbohydrates. When the mouth remains acidic for longer than two hours, the tooth enamel starts to corrode, leading to cavities. Dr. Jessica Meeske, Pediatric Dentist, Diplomat, American Board of Pediatric Dentistry, says: “Parents need to minimize the risk of acid erosion in their children, because once tooth enamel is gone, it’s gone for good.”
Dr. Meeske stresses that “contrary to the popular advice that it’s best to brush right after every meal, children should avoid brushing teeth immediately after consuming acidic foods or drinks because this is when the enamel is still soft. Parents can also give their children a foundation for acid erosion protection by having them brush twice daily with a toothpaste recommended for children. Over-the-counter pediatric toothpaste can help re-harden softened enamel and protect against further acid attacks.” Remember that children should not avoid healthy acidic foods, but should be taught proper tooth care to prevent acid tooth erosion!
You should not allow your children to skip meals, as doing so is not good for their oral health. Skipping meals could allow the mouth to become basic, which leads to bacterial proliferation. However, bacteria growing in a basic environment differ from bacteria thriving in acidic environment. Instead of causing enamel erosion, they cause gum disease and bad breath. They are also responsible for hardening of plaque, a sticky mixture of bacteria and food proteins that forms on teeth. Plaque is difficult to remove by brushing alone and causes enamel destruction, cavities and gum disease.
Your child should see a dentist twice a year. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every child should have the first dental appointment right after the first birthday. Many dentists don’t feel comfortable seeing such young children because of their fidgeting and inability to follow directions and recommend the first visit around the second birthday. Ask your health care provider for a list of pediatric dentists in your area. Or to locate a pediatric dentist, visit:
If you do not have dental insurance, contact your local dental society to inquire about community dental assistance plans and programs. To locate the dental society in your state, go to: http://www.animated-teeth.com/dental_insurance/t5_dental_insurance.htm.
Monika Pis, PhD, CPNP, is a primary care clinician in Taylor, MI. She is also the owner and health editor-in-chief of Plugged In Parents: http://www.pluggedinparents.com.