If your child has a cavity or two, he’s not alone. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease – four times more common than childhood obesity and five times more common than asthma. You can help encourage better dental health, starting today. Here’s what to do.
Good beginnings for dental hygiene: Ages 0-5
The first tiny teeth generally appear around 6 months, but parents can care for baby teeth before they even appear. Use a clean, damp washcloth to clean off residual food and milk after feedings and before bed.
Jennifer Luzader, instructional coordinator of dental hygiene at Delaware Technical Community College in Wilmington, DE, recommends that for children ages 0-2 a parent take charge of tooth brushing. You can let the child take a turn, but make sure a grownup controls the brush long enough to get rid of all the “sugar bugs.”
If two adults are home during brushing times, Luzader recommends the child sit on one parent’s lap and lean back. The second adult can then brush the child’s teeth more easily because the child should be relaxed, and her tongue should fall back out of the way. This positioning mimics how a child reclines in the dentist’s chair, so she won’t find it as new and scary when she starts getting regular cleanings.
Singing a song or reading a special book while brushing, like Brush, Brush, Brush! by Alicia Padron or Sesame Street Ready Set Brush! can help little ones who need some distraction to get the job done.
The brace race: Ages 6-12
Experts recommend a first orthodontic consult around age 7, and some children sport brackets by age 8. Orthodontists time treatment to correct issues like overbites and crossbites early in a child’s growth so his dental arches and teeth will grow more symmetrically during the natural growth spurt that occurs around age 10. Early braces usually mean two sets of braces — the first between ages 8 and 10 and the second around age 12.
This route isn’t for everyone; not every family wants to commit to two courses of orthodontic treatment, and braces require excellent brushing habits to avoid scars on the teeth that will be visible when the braces are removed.
According to Dr. Alexander Apple, DMD, MSD, of Optimal Orthodontics in Aston, PA, children with braces should increase brushing frequency to three times a day — in the morning, after school and at bedtime. Orthodontists also can supply soft mini-brushes or special flossers for kids to use at school after lunch or snacks.
“Telling a child to brush may still not be enough!” cautions Dr. Apple. “Have your child rinse with water after brushing with toothpaste and look in the mirror. If you can still see debris, white plaque or red gums, have your child brush again without toothpaste to allow visualization of areas that need to be cleaned further.”
Dental hygiene for teens: Ages 13-18
Over half of teens have had at least one cavity, and 13 percent have untreated decay. But because teens have their permanent teeth — the final baby teeth usually fall out by age 13 — good dental hygiene is especially important.
Teens tend to care about their attractiveness, so a gentle reminder about the appeal of fresh breath may motivate more thorough, regular brushing and flossing. Donna Bree, registered hygienist at Medford Family Dental Care in Medford, NJ, recommends that teens use a combination of a spinning toothbrush, daily flossing and fluoride mouth rinse to maintain a healthy mouth.
If your teen asks about whitening, Bree suggests she use an over-the-counter whitening strip. “In-office whitening treatments have a higher % of the bleaching agent, and teens have to check with their own dentist about whether they can do it,” Bree says.
Whitening toothpaste is another option for teens worried about discolored teeth, but Luzader advises using it only once a day because the abrasives in the toothpaste can cause tooth sensitivity if overused.
With age-appropriate guidance, every child can have a bright, healthy smile!
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.