Dental Health for Kids: Here’s what you need to know

BoyOnBike_86376988I get a gazillion questions from parents throughout the day about their children’s’ dental health. From foods that cause cavities (sticky sweets mostly and refined carbs) and how many teeth should my kid have (20 baby teeth) to the importance of fluoride (very). But, there’s one question I get from parents more than any other: “When do I bring my child in for his/her first dentist visit?” If you have children, you, too, may be asking the same questions. So here’s a quick and dirty primer on dental health for children.

When should my child see the dentist?

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that a child go to the dentist by age one or within six months after the first tooth erupts. At birth, your baby has 20 primary teeth positioned in the jaw just under the gums waiting to reveal themselves. But good dental care should begin before a baby’s first tooth actually appears. So, even before your baby starts teething, run a clean, damp washcloth over the gums to clear away harmful bacteria.

How should I care for baby teeth?

Baby teeth are very important to lifelong oral health, so it’s important that they stay in place until they are lost naturally. Baby teeth help children chew properly, help speech development, save the space for permanent teeth to grow in and promotes a healthy, happy smile. So taking care of them is just as important as adult teeth.

Once baby teeth are in, brush them with an infant toothbrush and just a tiny bit (size of rice) of toothpaste, non-fluoridated until the child is old enough not to swallow it. When fluoride toothpaste is introduced, use only a pea size and be sure it carries the American Dental Association’s (ADA) seal of approval. As soon as two teeth touch each other, floss between them once a day. You can use regular floss or special plastic floss holders, but supervise children under eight.

The first dentist visit is a great opportunity for parents to learn how best to care for their children’s teeth and ask questions about oral health.

Here are a few more common questions I get.

Will sucking on pacifiers, thumbs or fingers cause problems?

Sucking on fingers and thumbs is a very common way for babies and young children to sooth themselves—even while still in the womb. But most children stop sucking on things between two- and four-years old on their own. Occasionally, the habit may continue for a very long time, so we want to try and break the habit before age five. In some circumstances, the habit can cause the front teeth and jaws to tilt upward toward the lip, preventing the child’s bite from forming properly.

When should I expect adult teeth to grow in?

Adult teeth typically begin growing in around six months of age. Primary teeth are lost as adult teeth start pushing their way up, forcing them out of the way. Your child will start to notice wiggly teeth usually around age five and a half to six-years old. So in the middle of first grade, teachers are seeing a room full of toothless smiles. The best way to help these baby teeth along is to let your child wiggle them free, allowing them to release from the gums gradually. Once the baby tooth is out of the way, you’ll start to see the adult tooth erupting at the gum line, which may take a few weeks to fully emerge. But don’t expect a bright white enamel like you see in baby teeth. Adult teeth are naturally slightly darker in color.

How can I help my child prevent cavities?

Now that adult teeth are in, there’s no better way to help prevent cavities than brushing and flossing. We recommend brushing twice daily for two minutes each time, floss once daily, and see the dentist twice a year.

Best to also reduce sugar. Americans are consuming foods and drinks high in sugar and starches more often and in larger portions than ever before. A steady diet of sugary foods and drinks can ruin teeth, especially among those who snack throughout the day. When sugar is consumed over and over again in large, often hidden amounts, the harmful effect on teeth can be dramatic. Sugar on teeth provides food for bacteria, which produces acid. The acid in turn can eat away at the enamel on teeth, causing cavities. It’s hard to resist, but sugar is not a tooth’s friend. Offer water and healthy, naturally sweet fruits instead. When your kids do indulge, encourage them to brush and floss as soon after as possible.

How can dental sealants help protect my child’s teeth?

The truth is, it takes a while for kids to master brushing and flossing. Getting in between teeth and deep into the grooves can be hard for little hands. Dental sealants help protect your child’s teeth by forming a protective barrier that helps prevent bacteria from causing tooth decay. Sealants keep food particles and plaque from touching tooth enamel, particularly in spots that brushing and flossing can’t reach. It’s a very effective strategy to reduce cavities.

To keep happy, healthy smiles, make sure your kids have a balanced diet, limit snacks, and brush and floss each day. These healthy habits and regular dental check-ups are the keys to a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums.

–Dr. Chen

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