The dental statistics say it all: tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease in the United States. It’s five times more common than asthma, four times more common than early childhood obesity and 20 times more common than diabetes.
If left untreated, cavities can destroy a child’s teeth, making them more vulnerable to infections in other parts of the body, such as the ears. As children grow older, an unhealthy mouth can be associated with general health disorders like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
So how soon should parents bring children in for a first-time dental visit?
“This is a common question for parents,” said Dr. Bobbi Laun, a pediatric dentist at Ottawa Children’s Dentistry and staff member at OSF St. Elizabeth Medical Center. “We like to see children at around 1 year of age.”
The first dental visit should be when the first tooth comes in, between 6 and 12 months old. While some parents might believe the teeth haven’t developed enough to see a dentist until 3 years of age, Laun said that’s too late.
“Research shows that most children develop cavities and other dental problems before they’re 3,” she said. “If we see them when they’re 1, we’ve got a head start on good oral care and we’re better able to avoid problems like caries (cavities).”
Parents also should be aware of certain required examinations for their school-aged children.
“The state requires dental and medical exams for kindergarten, second, sixth and ninth grades,” Laun said. “It’s a fact that by kindergarten, most children have one cavity; 78 percent of 19-year-olds will have one or more cavities.”
That, Laun said, is why it’s important for children to see a dentist when they’re babies.
“Our goal is to prevent this disease and it starts when your child is 1 year old.”
Preparing for that first dental visit
A first visit to the dentist can be intimidating, so Laun has tips for parents to prep their children. One of her primary suggestions is a regular dental care routine at home.
“Children who are used to having their gums wiped and teeth brushed every day will be more comfortable going to the dentist,” Laun said.
While infants don’t have teeth, it’s important to begin taking care of their mouths and gums, Laun said. Use a damp washcloth to wipe an infant’s gums after every meal. This will help a child get used to having something besides food in the mouth. Between 5 and 8 months, when a child’s first tooth appears, use a soft toothbrush instead of the washcloth to clean their teeth.
For older children, Laun said parents should brush their teeth and gums twice a day, especially before bed. By age 3, children can be allowed to brush their own with a small amount of fluoride toothpaste; however, parents should still do the real brushing. By the time a child is 7 years or older, they should be developing techniques to brush their teeth by themselves.
Laun advises taking a child to the dentist every six months.
Advice for a healthy mouth
Laun said the No. 1 habit for a healthy mouth is to floss every day.
Cleaning between teeth removes plaque that can lead to cavities or gum disease from the areas where a toothbrush cannot reach, according to a news release from the American Dental Association. Interdental cleaning removes debris between teeth that can contribute to plaque buildup.
More than 500 bacterial species can be found in plaque, the American Dental Association reports, some of which are good and others of which are bad for a mouth’s health. Together with food debris, water and other components, the plaque buildup around the teeth and on the gum line will contribute to disease in teeth and gums.
Laun said it’s also important to make sure your children eat healthy foods and practice good nutrition rules. Poor nutrition and injured, diseased or poorly developed teeth can result in many problems ranging from painful, dangerous infections and facial or jaw bone development problems to speech development problems and a poor self image.
Laun said to never put an infant or young child to bed with a bottle of juice, milk or sugar water. Use only water for bedtime bottles.
For many people, including children and young adults, sugary drinks and junk food have replaced nutritious beverages and foods.
“Sugar and foods high in starch like bread and pretzels should be avoided as much as possible,” Laun said. “Sugar and starchy foods stick to your teeth, and that produces bacteria, which produces acid that damages the teeth. If your child chews gum, make sure it’s sugar-free because that will help make more saliva that washes out food and acid.”
During dental visits, Laun said parents should talk about any habits, such as thumb-sucking or breathing through the mouth.
An extra piece of advice
Laun has a warning for older children who are tempted to use tobacco products.
“Stop smoking. Smoking is very harmful to your oral and physical health,” Laun said.
Smoking can lead to loss of teeth, loss of taste, gum recession, oral cancer, mouth sores and wrinkles. Tobacco also gets into the bloodstream, reducing the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to mouth tissues, making the healing process difficult when being treated for periodontal and other oral diseases.
Don’t think that chewing tobacco is better than smoking. Chewers have the same or higher levels of nicotine in their systems than someone who smokes one or more packs of cigarettes a day. Chewers are more susceptible to tooth decay, and the tobacco contains at least 28 known cancer-causing chemicals.
Treats: The good, the bad and the ugly
Best treat choices: Dark chocolate and sugar-free gum
Dark chocolate contains antioxidants that can stop bacterial from sticking to the teeth. Sugar-free gum made with xylitol promotes non-acidic bacteria that makes it almost impossible for bacteria and plaque to form.
Acceptable treat choices: Milk chocolate, pretzels and crackers
Milk chocolate and snack-sized pretzels and crackers are less sticky and acidic. Limit these treats, though, because a child’s dental health depends more on how often they eat it rather than what they eat.
Worst treat choices: Avoid gummies, caramel, sour candy and bubble gum
These sticky treats can get stuck in teeth crevices, making it harder for saliva to wash them away and easier for tooth decay to begin. The high acidity in sour candy breaks down tooth enamel.