February is National Children’s Dental Health Month - a time for parents to focus on healthful habits and practices to ensure that their children enjoy a lifetime of beautiful smiles and healthy well-being.
“Tooth decay is one of the most common childhood diseases, and can cause problems that continue into later life,” says veteran San Antonio cosmetic dentist Dr. Edward Camacho, DDS. “The dental health of a child should be a top priority for parents, starting even before a baby is born.”
Dr. Camacho offers these ten tips for parents:
1) Get the true picture – Everyone understands that you should take care of your teeth to avoid toothaches, maintain your looks and keep dental bills at bay. Many people, however, don’t understand how crucial oral health is to our total health picture. Tooth problems can lead to diabetes, heart disease, systemic infections, an inability to eat or speak properly and other maladies – some life-threatening. Crooked or crowded teeth can contribute to gum disease that can eventually lead to tooth loss. Straight teeth are no longer just for looks.
2) Dental health starts in the womb – By the second trimester of pregnancy, a baby’s teeth are forming. To make sure development is normal, mom should consume generous amounts of foods containing calcium, including dairy, products, whole grains and leafy greens.
3) Avoid baby bottle tooth decay – Don’t use the nursing bottle as a pacifier, or let the baby fall asleep with a bottle containing any form of carbohydrates. Even human breast milk can lead to tooth decay if it remains in a baby’s unrinsed mouth. A better option is to give the child a bottle of water. Never dip a pacifier in sugar, honey or anything sweet. Mothers can also transmit the bacteria that cause tooth decay to their infants through kissing, sharing cups or utensils. It is recommended that new mothers chew gum, consume mints or candy with xylitol, a naturally occurring sugar. Xylitol reduces the amount of a specific type of bacteria (strep mutans) that causes tooth decay. Spry makes xylitol sweetened gum, mint and candy.
4) Protect the baby teeth - Although they’re only with the child for a few years, baby teeth serve an important role in the development of the mouth, serving as space-savers and guides for permanent teeth. Loss of baby teeth can lead to crowded or crooked permanent teeth. Baby teeth are also important to the normal appearance of the face, proper nutrition and speech. And, of course, cavities and infection can affect the child’s overall health.
5) Tooth brushing – Even before a child’s teeth begin coming in, you should develop the habit of cleaning your baby’s gums after feeding, using a damp cloth or gauze. When the first tooth arrives, usually between the ages of 6 and 10 months, you should switch to a small soft-bristle brush. Take care to brush behind the teeth and around the gum line, using just water without toothpaste. From ages 2 to 6, add a small amount of toothpaste – no more than the size of a pea (Spry makes an infant tooth gel with xylitol which reduces bacteria that cause decay). Until about age 7, parents should handle the tooth-brushing, or at least personally supervise. Make sure the kids learn proper brushing techniques, using a circular stroke to reach all surfaces.
6) Flossing – As soon as your child has two teeth touching, you should begin flossing between the teeth. It’s as necessary as flossing for adults, and introducing the practice early will teach the child the proper habits of tooth care.
7) Tooth-friendly diet -- Parents should train their children early toward a healthy diet that has limited candy, soft drinks and other sweets that can fuel the development of cavities. Cheese is an especially healthy snack, because it adds calcium, stimulates saliva production and counteracts chemicals that can eat away at tooth enamel.
8) Prevent decay with xylitol-New research suggests that products containing xylitol, a naturally occurring sugar, can prevent tooth decay and even Otis Media (ear infections). Oral bacteria do not use Xylitol therefore no acid is produced to eat away at enamel. Xylitol also reduces the quantity of caries causing bacteria creating additional protection between meals as well as inhibiting the bacteria from sticking to the teeth. Look for products that only use xylitol as the sweetener. (Young children should avoid non-liquid products such as gum, mints or lozenges until they can effectively chew or suck long enough to gain a benefit without swallowing or choking.)
9) Visit the dentist regularly – Parents should take their children to the dentist by their first birthday, and then continue twice a year. This is also a strategy session to work out a plan for lasting dental health. Ask about dental sealants that can protect teeth against decay. Make the trips fun, so that the kids learn that the dental office isn’t a place to be afraid of.
10) Don’t let small problems become big ones – A toothache is a sign that a cavity has reached an advanced stage. It might also indicate a more serious problem, such as a cracked tooth, an infection, jaw problems, etc. Parents should inspect their kids’ teeth regularly, paying attention to anything unusual, and encourage children to be aware of the first twinge of pain or any changes in their mouths.
“Poor dental health can affect everything from overall physical wellbeing to appearance, self-confidence and emotional health,” Dr. Camacho said. “It’s critical that parents understand the importance of the life skill they are passing along to their children.”