For Pediatric Dental Health Month, I asked my daughter-in-law, Kelsey Scott, DDS, a pediatric dentist, to write a couple of articles. She graciously accepted. Maintaining healthy teeth is vital to our overall health and it starts when those first teeth erupt.
Did you know that early childhood caries, or tooth decay, in children under age six affects roughly half of the population? It is the most common chronic bacterial infection, and it is preventable. Why is it important to prevent cavities in baby teeth? Won't they fall out anyway? While it is true that we lose our primary teeth (baby teeth), they still play a crucial role in space maintenance for our permanent teeth. Premature loss of primary teeth due to caries (cavities) is a cause of crowding in permanent teeth. Infected baby teeth can lead to worse issues such as cellulitis, a serious infection, and hospitalization.
Sugar is the biggest culprit in tooth decay
Four factors are required for a cavity to develop – the tooth, sugar, time, and bacteria. The two controllable factors are sugar and time. When a child eats or drinks sugar, the bacteria in the mouth process the sugar and produce an acid that causes a cavity over time. Feeding your child a diet low in refined sugar will protect their teeth from cavities. When eating or drinking refined sugar, it is best to have these snacks in one sitting and not throughout the day. The longer sugar is on the teeth, the more likely a cavity will form.
Everyone has bacteria in their mouth, and there is little we can do to control this. However, it has been proven that cavity-forming bacteria (Strep mutans) are frequently transferred from mother to child. This happens when the mom puts something in her mouth, then into the child’s mouth. For example, sharing food or utensils can transfer bacteria from the mom to the child. This can happen from any caregiver to a child, but most commonly is from the mother. Avoid this practice to help prevent cavities in your child.
A common misconception is that sports drinks are healthy for a child to drink. Sports drinks contain a high sugar concentration, just like soda and juice. It is not recommended for any child under the age of 5 years to consume sugar-sweetened beverages, including sports drinks. A child under 12 months should not drink juice at all. Also, a baby should only have their milk or water (when old enough for water) in a bottle, no sweet beverages and not have their pacifier dipped in anything sweet. A child between the ages of 1–3 should not consume more than 1/2 cup or 4 ounces of 100% juice per day, and ages 4-5 should not drink more than 1/2 - 3/4 cups or 4-6 ounces of 100% juice per day. When a child does drink 100% juice, it is recommended to drink it at mealtime in one sitting. Once the child is finished with their meal, water should be the beverage the child drinks.
Brushing teeth should begin once the first teeth erupt
Besides limiting sugar-sweetened snacks and beverages, brushing the teeth twice a day for two minutes will rid the teeth of the sugary film that forms and prevent cavities. The best time to start brushing your child's teeth is when they first erupt. Once the tooth is visible, it needs to be cleaned. It is recommended to use toothpaste with fluoride. For children younger than 3, use a rice-sized or smear-sized amount of toothpaste. After 3, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste and teach them to spit. Often children will go through phases of not wanting to brush their teeth. At younger ages, brushing after meal time, when the child is still sitting in the highchair, can help keep the child engaged during brushing. Continue brushing their teeth twice a day, and your child will learn that this is the routine, just like taking a bath!
When your child has a sweet craving, here are some suggestions for snacks:
Strawberries dipped in chocolate
For additional ideas for healthy sweet treats, see article on Sweet Tooth, 8/10/22.
Maintaining good dental hygiene starts with the first teeth!