Brush Up on Child Dental Health
Kids love sugar, and sugar loves teeth. As the number of young kids with cavities continues to rise, here’s what parents need to know to guarantee good oral health for their loved ones
Although there’s nothing quite as precious as a child’s smile, parents these days tend to be unprepared to handle dental care. According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one untreated decaying tooth – a number that grows to 25 percent for low-income families “It [tooth decay] is the most common yet most preventable disease in childhood,” says Dr. Joel Berg, dean of the University of Washington School of Dentistry, Seattle.
In her California practice, “We do see many preschoolers and even younger kids needing extensive work,” says Dr. MyLinh Ngo of Alameda and Pleasanton Pediatric Dentistry. “We feel that a big part of the solution is educating parents early on about how to prevent cavities for their kids.”
Children need to be seen by a dentist “as soon as parents see teeth appear” or no later than their first birthday, Ngo says. “Cavities can happen as soon as the tooth comes in, so regular care and cleaning are very important to avoid plaque buildup.”
Between dentist appointments, parents should brush kids’ teeth twice a day, even if there’s but a scant few of them poking out. “Plaque harbors cavity-causing bacteria, and if not cleared off your child’s teeth thoroughly each day, it will cause cavities to form,” Ngo says.
Because kids aren’t always thrilled to see the tube of Crest come out, parents sometimes skip brushings to keep the peace. “People have the idea, these are baby teeth; they’re going to fall out, so why bother?” Berg says.
But dental infections are painful and can spread, compromising overall health and sometimes requiring emergency care or surgery, he explains.
In addition, premature loss of baby teeth due to decay can affect speech development and lead to orthodontia problems later on.
Besides poor hygiene, kids’ eating habits are contributing to the increase in cavities. “Frequent snacking and the stickiness of foods both contribute to more decay,” Ngo says.
Snacks often regarded as healthy, such as raisins and whole grains, can change the pH level in the mouth, leaving behind enamel eating acid.
Between meals, when children aren’t likely to brush for a while, “an organic real-fruit roll-up may not be much better than a gummy bear,” Ngo warns.
Starches like crackers and cereal, which parents dole out from baggies all day long, break down into sugar in the mouth and are a common cause of decay, Berg says.
To help curb childhood obesity and tooth decay, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting fruit juice to one serving per day for children ages 1 to 6.
Kids should not be allowed to nurse constantly on bottles and sippy cups filled with anything other than water. And not all water is created equal. Fluoridated tap water offers protection against tooth decay whereas bottled waters generally do not.
Lastly, parents should mind their own dental hygiene and that of siblings and other caregivers, and not just because it’s important that kids have responsible role models. The cavity-causing bacteria S. Mutans can spread from one person to another. Babies are born without the bacteria and eventually acquire it, “but kids who get it sooner and in large amounts will have a greater chance of having early dental decay,” Ngo says. “Make sure everyone involved in their care has good oral hygiene and good oral health. This ensures that there will be a lower bacterial load that can potentially be transferred to the baby” through saliva on toys, “pre-tasted” foods, or shared cups and utensils, or through close contact.