All you need to know about dental health
BY HAILEY HUDSON FEBRUARY 2019
Halloween is often criticized, whether jokingly or seriously, for being a major cause of cavities. But the truth is, Valentine’s Day, or consuming candy and other overt sugar frequently any day of the year is just as much to blame for tooth decay. According to the NCA (National Confectioner’s Association), 83% of Americans share candy with family and friends on Valentine’s Day, and 75% of the total Valentine’s Day candy sales are made up of chocolate. And when you have children with a big sweet tooth (who can blame them?), it quickly becomes apparent that dental health should be an important focus all year long.
Having said that, note that many recent studies of dark chocolate made from high quality cocoa beans show that it actually prevents cavities. Since rich dark chocolate flavonoids have been noted for some years to be beneficial for the heart, many candy companies falsely market their candy as “dark chocolate.” But often a quick look at the ingredient list will reveal that the candy is not made with 100% cocoa.
February is National Children’s Dental Health month. The CDC in Atlanta shares the following statistics on oral health for children: around 20% (one out of five) children age five to 11 have at least one untreated decayed tooth (or cavity). Thirteen percent (one out of seven) adolescents age 12 to 19 also have at least one untreated decayed tooth. And when you consider that tooth decay can cause infections that might lead to issues with speaking, eating, learning, and playing, cavities become a bigger deal than you might think.
“Cavities can develop quickly on baby teeth, sometimes at an early age. Tooth decay can cause loss of tooth structure and pain that sometimes leads to high treatment costs, missed school days, a diminished ability to learn, and trouble eating,” says Megan Flournoy, DMD, Pediatric Dentistry of Central Georgia. “The good news is cavities can be prevented!”
By following a healthy diet low or free of white flour and sugar, helping your children form good oral hygiene habits, and taking them to the dentist for regular checkups, you can help promote good dental health. Here is everything you need to know and do to make sure your children’s teeth stay strong and healthy.
Keep an eye on thumbsucking. “Thumbsucking and pacifiers are common habits at an early age,” says Dr. Flournoy. “It is best to help a child stop these habits by age three as prolonged habits can affect how the teeth bite together.” Dr. Flournoy recommends an orthodontic appliance, if needed, to help older children stop thumbsucking. Thumbsucking is normal and isn’t something to be concerned about unless it continues as a child grows older. In that case, orthodontic intervention may be necessary to make sure facial development progresses correctly.
“Ideally, parents should wipe out their child’s mouth with a warm, wet washcloth after every feeding even before teeth erupt,” advises Dr. John H. Ambrose, DMD, Ambrose Pediatric Dentistry. After eruption, he adds, it’s best to use a soft toothbrush with a small amount of toothpaste. Consider taking your child shopping with you and letting them pick out a toothbrush with one of their favorite characters on it. Creating excitement around dental hygiene can make it easier to establish a good routine. Dr. Flournoy also recommends that parents should bring their children to the dentist for the first time at the age of one.
Ready, Set, Brush
Until your child is about age two or three, it’s best to brush her teeth for her. Wait to turn over the reigns until she has demonstrated the level of motor coordination and attention to detail needed to properly care for her teeth on her own. Around her second or third birthday, ease your child into trying to brush her own teeth: Try brushing your child’s teeth first, and then have her repeat what you did.
When assisting her, sit her on your lap, facing away from you and supporting her head with your arm—or, alternatively, rest her head in your lap. When your child is a bit older, stand behind her while brushing her teeth.
Using the soft-bristled, child-sized toothbrush your child helped to pick out, place a pea-sized amount of a fluoride toothpaste for children age two or older, and be sure to have them rinse and spit after brushing to avoid swallowing too much fluoride.
Ready to brush? While performing each step, talk to your child about what you’re doing, why and what the next step will be—there shouldn’t be any surprises. First, brush the inside surfaces of all teeth, angling the bristles at 45 degrees toward the gumline (the angle is important—this is where plaque accumulates most). Brush one to two teeth at a time using a gentle, circular motion.
Next, clean the outside surfaces of all teeth. Again, be sure to angle the bristles toward the gumline, and brush each tooth with short, gentle circular motions.
Finally, brush the chewing surface of the teeth, and for added good hygiene points, don’t forget to brush the surface of the tongue.
Another good way to establish good at-home oral care for the whole family is to make brushing a family habit. Brush together as a family twice a day, especially before bed, for two to three minutes each time. Lose track of time while you brush? Set a timer, upgrade to an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer, or brush along to a favorite song. Also, let every family member choose his or her own toothbrush and toothpaste—selecting their own style of brush and flavor of paste may help to encourage toothbrushing.
One of the best ways to be sure your child is learning correct oral hygiene habits is to schedule a dental checkup. Bring your child to her dentist (or hygienist) for a professional lesson about teeth and how to care for them. Sometimes hearing from someone other than mom and dad can work wonders for cooperation and inspiration to brush.
Create a routine of brushing teeth and flossing. Dr. Flournoy tells parents to establish the following routine with their children: “Brush teeth with fluoride toothpaste two times a day (morning and evening) for two minutes. A good time to brush is right before bed with nothing to eat or drink after brushing (except water). For children less than three years old, a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste is recommended. For ages three to six years old, a small pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste should be used.”
Flouride toothpaste prevents tooth decay by strengthening the enamel on your teeth. Keep in mind, though, that toothpaste should never be swallowed. If children under the age of eight swallow fluoride toothpaste, they may develop a condition known as fluorosis—which refers to too much fluoride interfering with their tooth enamel. As your children get older, there’s no need to brush their teeth for them, but continue to supervise their daily brushing.
Don’t forget to use a PFC-free floss, either. Choose a soft floss that won’t hurt the gums and teach your children how to floss between their teeth with a gentle but steady back-and-forth motion. Water flossers are great too!
Make regular visits to a pediatric dentist. Just like there is a difference between a family doctor and a pediatrician, there is a difference between a family dentist and a pediatric dentist. “A pediatric dentist is specially trained to meet the unique treatment needs of children,” Dr. Flournoy explains. “Pediatric dentists have extra years of training to prepare for treating young children.” Most pediatric dentists, Dr. Ambrose adds, are also trained to treat children with special needs.
Many families take their children to a pediatric dentist in early childhood and eventually transition to a family dentist. Pediatric dentists can also perform more specialized procedures. “Either way, both pediatric dentists and family dentists play an important role in working together to help your child,” says Dr. Flournoy.
Going to the dentist—especially for the first time—can be a scary experience for young children. There are ways, however, that you can help prepare your children for their dentist appointment. “Watching a short cartoon or video featuring the child’s favorite character is helpful,” Dr. Ambrose says.
Role-playing is also an excellent way to help your children’s nerves go away. Purchase a toy set with a dentist’s coat and tools and play with it together. Start out acting as the dentist yourself, and then let your child pretend to be the dentist and clean your teeth. However you choose to get your child used to the idea of the dentist, remember to never use negative words when referring to the dentist. Try to make the dentist a fun and enjoyable experience.
Diet Is Key
Help your children follow a healthy diet. “A diet high in carbohydrates (chips, white bread, snack crackers) and overt sugar (fruit snacks, juices, desserts) increases a child’s risk for developing cavities,” says Dr. Flournoy. Avoid these foods in favor of lots of vegetables, protein, fruits, low-dairy products, grains, and don’t forget true dark chocolate. It’s also a good idea to implement set meal and snack times instead of simply grazing throughout the day.
Dr. Ambrose recommends starting early. “It is imperative not to put your child to bed with a bottle or sippy cup with juice or milk. This can result in baby bottle tooth decay,” he says. Dr. Flournoy agrees that you need to begin earlier rather than later. By getting your children into the habit of avoiding sugary drinks and snacks when they’re young, they will crave those foods less as they grow older, she says, and their dental health will be better as a result.
By teaching your children to brush their teeth, regularly visiting the dentist, and eating healthy foods, you are setting them up to have a lifelong happy and healthy smile.