February 18, 2021
Every year in February we celebrate National Children’s Dental Health Month. This month-long national health observance brings together thousands of dedicated professionals, healthcare providers, and educators to promote the benefits of good oral health to children, their caregivers, teachers, and many others. Below you will find information and answers to questions I frequently provide to parents and caregivers of the children I get to see in our office.
Before baby has arrived
What most expecting parents don’t realize is that they have an impact on their children’s oral health during pregnancy. Your child’s baby teeth start to calcify and form at about 14-19 weeks in utero. For moms-to-be, be sure to brush your teeth with fluoridated toothpaste twice per day, and floss at least once per day. It’s important that you see your dentist for an exam, cleaning, and any needed treatment. Don’t worry! It’s completely safe to receive dental treatment during your pregnancy. In fact, it’s best for your baby.
After baby has come
Most babies start teething months after they are born, but on rare occasion some babies are born with teeth. These are called natal teeth. They can be small, loose, or discolored and may need to be removed. Once your child is 3 to 6 months of age, you may see changes in behavior that indicate teething. Classic signs and symptoms include excessive drooling, chewing on objects, irritability or crankiness, sore or tender gums, and a slight increase in temperature. To ease your baby’s discomfort you can allow a cool (not frozen) teething toy, rub your baby’s gums, or try an over-the-counter remedy like infant Tylenol. Avoid using homeopathic teething tablets which can cause seizures, medications like Orajel which can cause benzocaine overdose, and teething necklaces, bracelets or anklets which pose a risk of choking, strangulation, mouth injury and infection. Teething for the baby teeth ends when all 20 baby teeth have erupted; at about age 3.
How do I care for my baby’s new teeth?
Run a soft, clean, moist cloth over your baby’s gums after the morning feeding and before bed. This gentle cleansing keeps formula, breastmilk, food debris, and bacteria from building up in your baby’s mouth. Once the first tooth has erupted, use a soft baby toothbrush or finger brush with a tiny smear of fluoridated toothpaste to clean his or her teeth twice a day. Once your child reaches about age three, switch to a small, pea-sized amount of toothpaste that is worked into the bristles of the toothbrush with your finger. By pushing the toothpaste into the bristles of the brush you will prevent the paste from floating off of the brush in the saliva. This is also the time to begin flossing your child’s teeth. Children need a grown-up actively helping them brush and floss until about age 8. At age 8 most children have advanced their fine motor skills to allow them to do a good job brushing and flossing independently.
When do I take my child to their first dental visit?
The American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommend scheduling a child’s first dental visit at or before his or her first birthday. Often this visit will include an exam while sitting on the parent’s lap. The exam at this age can catch problems early and provide the parent with education on techniques to brush and floss at home, nutrition, how thumb sucking and prolonged use of a baby bottle or pacifier can affect the baby teeth, and is the appointment where the first application of professional fluoride is given. Even at this early age, it’s important to have your child see their dentist every 6 months. Once your child is older these appointments may also include x-rays and a cleaning, education on maintaining health gums, an evaluation to prevent crowding of adult teeth, and dental sealants for the permanent molars.
Nutrition and Oral Health
Daily brushing and flossing are essential to a healthy smile, but did you know nutrition has an effect on your dental health, too? Making healthy food choices is crucial for overall health, but especially for our teeth. Limiting foods and drinks that contain natural or added sugars is important in preventing cavities, particularly when the drinks are offered in bottles or cups at bedtime. Calcium rich and phosphorus rich foods are healthy for our teeth, and can help strengthen them. Some examples of tooth-friendly foods include raw fruits or vegetables, nuts, water or unsweetened milk, cheeses, plain yogurt, meat, poultry, fish, milk, and eggs. How often your child eats can also affect cavity rate. The more often your child eats, especially between meals, the more likely they are to get cavities.
Why are baby teeth important? Aren’t they going to lose them anyway?
Baby teeth are important for many reasons. Not only do they help children speak clearly and chew naturally, they also aid in forming a path that permanent teeth can follow when they are ready to erupt. If a baby tooth is lost early due to cavities or infection, the remaining teeth can move and create space loss in the mouth. This space loss complicates the eruption of permanent teeth. A long standing infection in a baby tooth can actually damage the permanent tooth. Your child’s smile also plays a big role in the social situations they will face at school. Having a nice smile gives your child confidence.
When will my child lose their baby teeth?
As your child’s mouth and jaws grow, the permanent teeth continue to form. At about 6 years of age your child may tell you that their teeth are getting wiggly. The first teeth most children lose are the two lower front teeth. Around the same time the first permanent molars erupt in the back of the mouth. The baby molars and upper canine teeth are usually the last teeth to come out. Most children lose the last of their baby teeth by age 13.
Parents are the best role models
Our children watch and mimic everything that we do. As parents we want them to create good oral hygiene habits such as brushing and flossing at home as part of their daily routine. The most important impact we can have on this will come from our children observing our own good habits. Lead by example and demonstrate how important your children’s teeth are to their overall health and continuing quality of life. Optimal dental health translates to a healthier child in general and impacts their future habits and livelihood.
Steps parents can take to improve a child’s oral health
- Be a good role model by taking care of your own teeth. Children learn best by imitating.
- Help children pick a toothpaste and allow them to select their favorite flavor.
- Allow children to choose their own toothbrush featuring different colors or cartoon characters.
- Schedule brushing times and develop a consistent time of day for oral care routine.
- Monitor children’s manual dexterity and offer assistance with brushing and flossing when necessary.
- Have children brush for 2 minutes. Use a timer or hourglass which can be helpful and fun.
- Play a song like Happy Birthday or some other child-friendly tune while children brush to help keep track of time.
- Praise children for their oral care efforts.
- Reward children with a sticker or gold star on a chart.
Remember, an early start to regular childhood dental care helps set the stage for a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums. Working together, parents, caregivers, teachers, and healthcare providers create the best team to keep your child’s oral health the best it can be.