What happens in childhood can last a lifetime. Oral health impacts a child’s overall health, self esteem, and ability to thrive. Starting out with the right dental habits as well as healthy nutritional habits are the key to success.
The statistics surrounding children’s dental health in the United States are not positive. Currently 44% of US children will have at least one cavity by kindergarten and over 19.5% of children 2-5 and 22.9% of children 6-19 have untreated cavities. While percentages have declined over the past decade the levels are still too high.
All tooth decay is preventable. Oral health is a smart investment from the very beginning. The average cost of applying a dental sealant to a child’s permanent teeth is less than one-third the cost of filling a cavity.
Developing good habits at an early age and scheduling regular dental visits help children get a good start on a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums. A child’s complete preventive dental program should include fluoride, twice-daily brushing, wise food choices, and regular dental care.
As a dentist, parents often ask me for tips on helping to instill positive dental habits for their children. Here are a few:
Make it a habit. Most positive habits require 3 weeks of repetition to have a lasting effect so start out by making it a regular routine.
Drink water. Avoid juice, soda and sports drinks. They have little nutritional benefit and are loaded with sugar.
The right size. Use an appropriate sized toothbrush for the age of child.
Eat Healthy. Have healthy food choices available such as vegetables sticks, nuts, meat and cheese roll ups, apples with nut butter.
Flouride. Talk to your dentist about the right flouride treatments and sealants depending on your child’s age and history.
Brushing on their own. When a child is able to write they can manage brushing on their own. Supervision is still important to assure their teeth are clean.
Visits to the dentist. When your child is able to sit for a haircut they are ready to visit the dentist. It’s helpful for your child to become familiar and comfortable with the dentist office, the dentist and the staff at an early age.
Here are some additional suggestions based on age:
From Birth To 12 Months
- After feedings, gently brush your baby’s gums using water on a baby toothbrush with soft bristles. Or wipe them with a clean washcloth.
- Schedule your baby’s well-child visits. During these visits your child’s doctor will check your baby’s mouth.
- And… Schedule your child’s first dental checkup. It’s helpful for children to get comfortable going to the dentist office and meeting the people there.
From 12 To 24 Months
- Brush your child’s teeth twice a day using water on a baby toothbrush with soft bristles. The best times are after breakfast and before bed.
- Limit juice. Make sure your child doesn’t drink more than 1 small cup of juice each day and only at mealtimes.
- Consult with your child’s dentist or doctor about sucking habits. Sucking too strongly on a pacifier, a thumb, or fingers can affect the shape of the mouth and your child’s “bite.”
- Schedule a dental checkup if your child has not had one.
At 24 Months
- Brush. Help your child brush her teeth twice a day with a child-sized toothbrush that has soft bristles. Encourage her to brush her teeth on her own but make sure her teeth are clean. You may need to brush them again.
- Flouride. You can start using fluoride toothpaste, which helps prevent cavities. Teach your child not to swallow it. Use a pea-sized amount or less and smear the paste into the bristles. Swallowing too much fluoride toothpaste can make white or brown spots on your child’s adult teeth.
- Floss. You can begin flossing your child’s teeth as soon as 2 teeth touch each other. Not all children need their teeth flossed at this age, so check with your dentist first.
- Schedule your child’s annual dental checkup.