What do tots, tweens and teenagers have in common? They all need to practice good oral hygiene to protect their teeth from the number one chronic childhood disease: tooth decay. A healthy mouth will allow them to eat nutritious foods comfortably, speak clearly, and smile confidently. And to achieve that goal, they all need a little extra help from their parents and caregivers from time to time… whether they would care to admit it or not.
Oral health is a key component of general health; if left untreated, oral problems such as tooth decay and gum disease can cause trouble throughout the body. However, these diseases are preventable by maintaining good oral hygiene. Whether we’re talking about babies, kids or adults, the basics of a good hygiene routine are the same, although the tools and techniques may be different. The goal is to prevent harmful bacteria and the acids they produce from building up in the mouth and attacking teeth.
The younger the child, the greater the role you as a parent and caregiver will have in ensuring the job is done properly. Did you know that dental disease can actually progress faster in primary (baby) teeth, which have a thinner coating of protective enamel than permanent (adult) teeth? But even older teens may still need your help—not only to make sure they have the proper tools for the job (a soft brush, some fluoride toothpaste, and floss) but also to act as a role model and advocate for a healthy lifestyle. In fact, one of the most important things you can do is to convey to your child that good oral hygiene matters. Let’s look at some of the most important hygiene issues you’ll face during different stages of your child’s development.
Infants & Toddlers
Parents often wonder when the time is right to start brushing a child’s teeth. The answer is, if you can see it, you can clean it! The American Dental Association recommends that new baby teeth, which start emerging around 6 months of age, should be gently brushed with a soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head and just a thin smear of fluoride toothpaste twice daily. The “smear” should be no bigger than a grain of rice. When the child reaches about 3 years of age, you can increase the amount of fluoride toothpaste to about the size of a pea (or their fingernail)—but wait until your child is able to follow instructions and spit out the toothpaste, rather than swallowing it.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that babies never be put down for a nap with a bottle containing anything but water; they also say that night feedings should cease when teeth start to emerge. This will prevent the sugars in formula or breast milk from remaining in contact with newly developing teeth, which increases the risk of decay. Juice is particularly problematic because of the sugars and acids it contains, and should be avoided.
Toddlers often want to assert their independence, and may want to take over the job of brushing their own teeth before they’re fully competent at it. It’s fine to allow them to take a turn at it—but make sure you still get your turn, to be certain the job is done right. Explain that they need to reach all the teeth—front, back and chewing surfaces—but they must do so gently; harsh scrubbing will do more harm than good. Most children will need help with brushing until they reach the age of 6.
Flossing is also important, starting when two teeth touch each other. Some children may only need a few back teeth flossed, depending on their dental spacing. Even after your kids learn to brush effectively, they may still need your help with flossing. Pre-loaded floss holders may be easier to use while they learn this important component of an effective oral hygiene routine.
Children & Teens
Once your kids reach an age at which they’re primarily responsible for their own day-to-day oral hygiene, you may breathe a sigh of relief. But you still have an important role to play in ensuring their oral health. Here are some things you can do:
Monitor their efforts. Do your children’s teeth look less-than-clean? Are they using worn-out toothbrushes that need to be replaced? Is flossing actually happening? These are all things worth keeping an eye on; sometimes a gentle reminder is in order.
Provide a healthy diet. Make sure there are always fresh fruits and raw vegetables in the house to snack on. Ban soda from your refrigerator—even diet varieties, which contain tooth-eroding acid. The same is true for sports drinks, so-called energy drinks, and pre-sweetened iced tea. Teach your kids that if sugar in any of its forms (high fructose corn syrup, “cane juice,” etc.) is listed as one of the first three ingredients on a food label, that item should be considered a dessert.
Make sure they see the dentist regularly. No child (or adult) can keep their teeth plaque-free without the help of a professional. Routine teeth cleanings and dental exams are essential for good oral health. Your child’s dentist will check on oral hygiene efforts and offer instruction where needed; clean any hard-to-reach plaque deposits; and provide preventive services, such as fluoride treatments and dental sealants, when required. If any cavities are present, they can be treated promptly, before they become more serious. The dentist will also monitor tooth development and let you know if there are any signs of orthodontic problems.
Be a good role model. Children, particularly teens, will surely notice if you are talking the talk but not walking the walk. That’s why it is so important to take good care of your own teeth as you’re taking care of theirs. This will go a long way towards giving everyone in the family the best chance of avoiding dental disease and pain, and keeping a sparkling smile for life.