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How To Protect Your Child’s Permanent Teeth

Finally, your child has grown-up teeth! No more endearing gaps in their grins, no teeth in the process of coming out, no worries about them eating corn on the cob or crunching into an apple. It’s great to see their big kid smiles, and it’s important to know how to take care of their permanent teeth so that those smiles stay healthy and strong.

When Do Kids Get Permanent teeth?

Children usually have their full set of 20 primary teeth (also called baby teeth or deciduous teeth) by the age of three years. They then typically start to lose their baby teeth when they are 6 or 7 years old, though the process can start a year earlier or later. Most kids will have a complete set of permanent teeth, not counting wisdom teeth, by age 12. Between ages 6-12, they will have a mix of permanent and primary teeth.

The growth of permanent teeth, usually referred to by dentists as “eruption,” is typically a very orderly and symmetrical process, occurring at the same time on both sides of the mouth. Usually you can expect that the first permanent teeth to erupt will be the central incisors (the two lower middle teeth). But some children get their first permanent molars (also called the 6-year molars) first. These molars don’t replace baby teeth, they come in behind them, as there are more permanent teeth than baby teeth (28 permanent teeth, 32 counting wisdom teeth).

When your child is around 11 or 12, the second permanent molars (also called 12-year molars) will come in, right behind the 6-year molars. Wisdom teeth, or third molars, come in between ages 17 and 21. Your child may not get wisdom teeth, may not get all four of them, or may not have enough room in his or her mouth to allow wisdom teeth to erupt. If the latter situation occurs, your dentist may advise having them removed.

The ADA has a chart that shows the typical pattern of permanent teeth eruption. If you have any concerns about accelerated or slow baby tooth loss or the process of permanent teeth eruption, the best person to talk to is your dentist.

Caring for Permanent Teeth

Your child may be ready to brush his or her teeth independently between the ages of 6 and 8. Again, this varies widely with the child. Have your dentist or dental hygienist show your child how to brush their teeth properly at every checkup, and supervise how the child does at home.

Once you’re sure that they can do a good job on their own, give them the freedom to brush on their own - though you’ll want to pay attention to how thoroughly they clean their teeth after the novelty of independence wears off. You might choose to provide your kids with an electronic toothbrush or app that tracks how thoroughly your child is brushing. Many of these perform like games with encouraging, fun incentives and rewards (like the sound of cheers, or points scored), and some kids enjoy using them.

Talk to your dental health care provider about flossing as well, and enlist their help in teaching your child this important personal hygiene skill.

Your dentist may advise applying sealants to your child’s permanent molars. A sealant is a thin plastic material that is applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth (premolars and molars), the places where dental decay frequently occurs. Sealants protect these susceptible areas by "sealing out" plaque and food debris. (Adults can benefit from sealants too, ask your dentist if the process is right for you.)

Healthy Food and Your Child's Teeth

Sugar and acid are the primary enemies of healthy teeth. Sugar is used as fuel by the acid-producing bacteria that live in our mouths. These bacteria love carbohydrates.

Carb-fueled bacteria multiply super-fast, creating an acidic environment in your mouth that weakens teeth and fosters the growth of bacterial plaque. Over time, without proper oral hygiene and dental care, the plaque clinging to teeth works its way under the gums, resulting in oral infections and tooth decay. Bacterial plaque is the primary cause of 90% of all dental disease.

Battle destructive bacteria by choosing treats carefully. Any carbohydrate that clings to your teeth – think sticky candies, dried fruit, and caramels – provides a steady source of fuel for oral bacteria. A small candy bar is actually better for your child’s teeth than a bag of raisins.

And while a glass of fruit juice may seem to be healthy, it’s probably also packed with sugar and acid. The acid softens your child’s tooth enamel, while the sugar feeds bad bacteria – double whammy. Stick to veggie juices or, even better, water.

But we can’t be perfect all the time. After indulging in a sugary or acidic snack, teach your child to rinse his or her mouth with water. If they’re in a location where they can’t rinse, chewing a piece of sugarless chewing gum will help to increase saliva flow which will squelch the bad bacteria and neutralize the acid levels in your child’s mouth.

Notice we didn’t suggest that you have your kid brush their teeth immediately after snacking on acidy foods or drinks? That’s because dental enamel will be softened by the acid, and brushing can further damage it. Teach your child to wait an hour or so before bushing after drinking or eating acidy foods.

Good personal hygiene and regular checkups help keep teeth healthy – and save the pain and expense of dealing with decayed teeth in later life. Give your kids a great start on a lifetime of smiles by helping them to understand the importance of dental health, and showing them the right way to care for their teeth.