February is national Children’s Dental Health Month, a time to focus on the importance of good oral health habits. This is especially important for young children because tiny baby teeth play a big role in a child’s overall health and development. Baby teeth help children chew food, speak clearly, and hold space so permanent teeth can grow in straight later.
But right now, dental decay is the most common chronic disease in young children, five times more prevalent than asthma. Children with poor oral health experience pain, distraction from learning, and difficulty eating and speaking. All of this can be prevented by practicing good dental habits with children at home, visiting the dentist regularly, and following a balanced diet.
Here are some simple tips to protect your child’s smile now and well into the future:
Don’t put baby to sleep with a bottle. Painful Early Childhood Caries (formerly known as baby bottle tooth decay) is caused when children are allowed to go to bed with a bottle of milk, formula or juice. When this happens, the sugar from the liquid stays in contact with the baby’s teeth for several hours, breaking down the enamel and discoloring teeth. Severe cases can lead to cavities and the removal of teeth.
Gently wipe your baby’s gums with a clean, wet cloth after each feeding.
Stop using a bottle for your baby once she turns 12 months. Try a training cup and then a regular cup. The sippy cup is a training tool to help children transition from a bottle or breastfeeding to a cup. It shouldn’t be used for a long period of time – it’s not a bottle and it’s not a pacifier.
Don’t share your toothbrush or eating utensils with your child. Children are not born with cavity-causing bacteria in their mouths, and babies and small children can actually “catch” bacteria from their caregivers. Sharing utensils or letting children put their fingers in your mouth can transfer bacteria in your saliva, which can cause tooth decay.
Brush your child’s teeth twice daily as soon as your child’s first tooth comes in. Use a soft child’s toothbrush, without toothpaste. Children can start using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste at 2 or 3 (once they don’t swallow it). Parents should continue helping children brush their teeth until the child is 6 or 7 years old.
Take your baby to the dentist. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends parents schedule a visit to the dentist when their child’s first tooth comes in or at least by a child’s first birthday. After that first visit, children should have a dental checkup at least once a year.
Ask your dentist about fluoridated drinking water and other ways to protect your child’s teeth. Young children require fluoride to help developing teeth grow strong, and it helps prevent tooth decay in older children when used on a regular basis. Children may not be getting the fluoride they need so talk with your dentist at your next appointment.
Limit sweet and sticky foods, such as raisins or fruit leather snacks. Instead, offer a variety of healthy food from all of the food groups including a variety of fruits, vegetables, and cheeses.
Give your child water instead of juice or soda when he is thirsty. Juice and soda contain sugar, and sugar is a known cause of cavities. The acidity in carbonated drinks like soda can also cause erosion of tooth enamel after just one sip.
Start flossing your child’s teeth once two teeth start touching, usually around age 4. Flossing is an important part of dental care because it removes food particles and plaque.
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