Children’s Oral Health
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Prioritizing children’s oral health is key for promoting oral hygiene, good overall health, and a bright smile. Children require different oral maintenance than adults, and the level of care varies depending on their age and the condition of their teeth.
This guide provides all of the information you need on how to take care of your child’s oral health, including how to face cavities and dentist visits.
Cavities in Children
Cavities are tiny holes in your teeth that come from tooth decay. This decay is caused by bacteria, too much sugar, and improper oral hygiene. In the U.S. alone, 20% of children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one decayed tooth. This percentage drops to about 13% in children aged 12 to 19, but it increases for children among low-income families. If left untreated, cavities can affect deeper layers of the tooth and gums. Not only that, but children with poor oral health tend to get lower grades in school and miss more class time than children with good oral health. Luckily, there is plenty you can do to help prevent cavities in your child’s mouth, all starting with promoting children’s oral health and hygiene.
Risk Factors for Cavities
Children run a higher risk of getting cavities when:
- Immediate family members, such as siblings or parents, have cavities
- Their diet is high in sugary foods and drinks
- They have other orthodontic concerns or wear braces
These are not guarantees a child will get a cavity, but they merit extra precautions and closer attention.
Child Cavity Treatment
Dentists can provide dental fillings to treat cavities in toddlers and children. These can be done on both baby and adult teeth. The dentist will first remove the decay in the affected tooth and then replace it with the white filling. The child may experience some discomfort during and after the procedure, but this is usually temporary. If your child has developed a cavity, don’t worry. Visiting your local dentist can resolve the issue quickly, and you can then begin the journey of promoting oral health to avoid other cavities in the future.
How to Take Care of a Baby’s Oral Health
While your newborn will not have any teeth, you can still practice good oral hygiene by cleaning the baby’s mouth after feedings. Not only does this remove harmful sugars and bacteria, but it instills good dental habits early on. Starting at this age reduces the chance of oral sensitivities and tantrums over teeth-brushing later on.
The CDC recommends wiping your baby’s gums twice a day with a soft, clean cloth. This should be done after the morning feeding and before bed, much like the schedule for brushing one’s teeth. Wiping the gums removes bacteria and sugar that can fester in the baby’s mouth throughout the day and overnight.
While some people believe that babies do not need to see a dentist until they have their first teeth, setting up an initial visit around six months can make sure you get ahead of any potential issues. Your dentist can also provide specific instructions and insight for the future of your child’s dental care.
Make sure you visit the dentist by their first birthday to spot potential issues as early as possible.
How to Take Care of a Toddler’s Oral Health
Even though they are learning and exploring every day, your toddler needs your help for all their daily activities – including taking care of their oral health. Baby teeth begin to grow between 4 and 7 months old. By 3 years old, most kids will have all 20 baby teeth.
From teaching them how to brush their teeth to ensuring they’re consuming enough fluoride, here are the things you should know when taking care of your toddler’s oral health.
Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that is extremely beneficial for your teeth. Usually found in tap water, it helps protect teeth from cavities and hardens enamel. Most children receive enough fluoride through their drinking water, and you can check the CDC’s My Water’s Fluoride website to see if your tap water is sufficient. If your water does not contain fluoride, you should speak to your dentist about an oral fluoride supplement. You can also ask about using fluoride toothpaste. Once at the dentist, your child will likely get a fluoride varnish or cleaning.
Brushing and Flossing
Your toddler can begin using a soft child-size toothbrush when they are around one year old. Brush your toddler’s teeth with water twice a day after eating when they are between 1 and 2 years old. At this age, you won’t want to brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste unless you are sure they will spit it out instead of swallowing it.
There are many varieties of toddler-safe toothpaste to choose from, but make-or-break detail tends to be flavor. Try to start with a flavor that your toddler is familiar with and likely to enjoy, such as strawberry. Harsher flavors, like fresh mint, may be too strong and cause your child to reject tooth brushing.
When using toothpaste, stick to a pea-sized amount. Model correct brushing for your child or have your dentist do it at their next visit.
To make brushing teeth more fun for your toddler, you can play their favorite song as they brush. This is also a great way to ensure they brush for at least two minutes.
Toddlers’ teeth are generally spaced out and do not require flossing, but you can get in the habit early on using fun-colored flossers.
Sugary foods and drinks are the main culprits when it comes to children’s cavities. If possible, avoid that your child drinks soda, fruit juice, or sweetened drinks often. Acidic drinks in particular, like soda, bathe the teeth in acid, which wears them down. Make sure your toddler has access to fresh water throughout the day, and consider limiting juices to meal times. This lets them enjoy the sweeter beverage without giving them access to it all day. Limit sweet, processed snacks and try to replace them with healthier options, like fruit. While natural sugars still affect dental health, their impact is not as severe. If your child does eat sugar, ensure you can help them brush their teeth afterward. You can explain that, while sugar is great as a treat, it requires special care afterwards.
Sucking on Pacifiers, Fingers, or Thumbs
Most infants and toddlers suck on a pacifier, their thumb, or their fingers. This is a natural habit that usually dissipates by 4 years of age. While the benefits of these pacifiers are valid, it is important to understand the dental issues they can lead to. Children that continue to suck on their fingers or a pacifier past this age force their teeth to become crooked and slanted, and they move forward in the mouth.
Because this affects teeth and jaw alignment in the future, along with changes in the roof of the mouth, it is important to mention this habit to your dentist. They can assist with weaning your child off the habit and prepare for these potential problems.
How to Take Care of a Child’s Oral Health
Once your child outgrows the terrible twos, they will begin to lose their baby teeth between 6 and 12 years of age. This is the time when dentist visits are especially important, as your dentist can note any appearing dental issues that may need correction. Children will eventually grow and have all 32 adult teeth, including wisdom teeth, which may not appear until later in life.
Brushing and Flossing
Your child can continue using a child-size toothbrush until they are about 7 or 8 years old. At that time, they can switch over to a larger toothbrush. Be sure to switch out toothbrushes every 3 to 6 months or when the bristles begin to spread out. Most dentists recommend swapping as the seasons change.
As your child grows and better follows directions, teach them to brush their tongue along with their teeth. This helps reduce the number of odor-causing bacteria in the mouth. You can also have them focus on brushing around their gum line to prevent gingivitis. Your child should continue brushing their teeth twice daily, once in the morning and once before bed. They can also begin flossing once daily with guidance.
Because it can be difficult to maneuver a strand of floss in someone else’s mouth (especially one that is much smaller), using flossers can keep the process stress free. These tools can also increase your child’s confidence in their ability to floss on their own.
If your child participates in sports, you may want them to wear a mouth guard, especially for contact sports such as football, basketball, soccer, and martial arts. Mouth guards can be used for a variety of other issues, including teeth grinding, but it is important to use a mouth guard specialized for that activity. Instead of purchasing a generic mold, talk with your dentist about creating a custom mouth guard for your child’s mouth and the specific application.
Older children should try to avoid sugary foods and drinks as much as toddlers. Older children may also chew sugarless gum occasionally, as it can strengthen the jaw and balance out acid that can cause decay.
Make sure your child is consuming enough vitamin D and calcium to help them grow strong and dense teeth.
Motivating Oral Hygiene
Even if you introduce oral hygiene at a young age, there is still a good chance that your child will not want to take care of their mouth properly. What is only four minutes of necessary tasks for us seems like hours of missed playtime for them. It is important that you set the standard early on that dental hygiene is non-negotiable, but you should be sympathetic to their cause.
Instead of getting locked into a battle of wills or doling out punishments, consider these effective methods of motivation.
Set an Example
Children learn most everything by watching someone else do it, and dental hygiene is no exception. Make sure they grow up watching you take care of your teeth. This actually works best if they watch an older sibling, but any close family member will do. Include them in your morning and evening routines as much as possible so they adopt good habits.
Make it Fun for a Child
We like to get in and out of the routine, but children look for fun in every opportunity. To make teeth brushing more fun:
- Pay a bit extra for the character-branded toothbrush or toothpaste
- Play music while you brush your teeth
- Look for cartoons and books on the subject
Fictional role models like Daniel Tiger or Sesame street characters have a lot to say on the subject, and settling in for an oral hygiene episode may change their child’s opinion on the issues.
Focus on Positives
As frustrating as it is when they don’t understand the importance of an activity, resorting to threats or ultimatums tends to have an opposite effect. Nagging your child only brings about more negativity, and they’ll be even less likely to want to brush their teeth.
Instead, focus on what they are willing to do. Praise your toddler for not biting the toothbrush for once, and let your older children know you see them trying. Consider using a reward system if it works with your parenting style and your child’s motivation. The less of a fight it is with you, the more likely they will be to keep up proper dental practices and have positive experiences with their dentist.
Visiting a Dentist
It is recommended that your child have their first dentist appointment by one year of age or within 6 months of when their first tooth appears. By introducing your child to the dentist at a young age, you can help them get used to the experience and assimilate it as a part of a healthy life. Once they visit their dentist for the first time, you should schedule regular checkups for your child. Not all dentist appointments are enjoyable for children. Many pediatric dentists specialize in treating children, which includes creating a fun and colorful environment to distract the child from the potentially-scary dental equipment. You may also want to pair your child’s dentist visits with a fun activity afterward, such as going to the playground immediately after the appointment. This could create a more positive association within the child between their dental appointment and having fun. As an older child and adult, your kids should continue visiting the dentist twice a year.
By helping to promote children’s oral health within your own family, you are making sure that your kids are well on their way to a happier and healthier future.
Learn about how to promote oral health in your baby, toddler, or older child. From cavities to proper brushing, we’ve got you covered!