How to Care for Your Children's Teeth
As a parent, you have so much to think about, so much to do, and so much to worry about when it comes to raising children. There are so many differing opinions out there on every topic. How do you know who you can trust?
At my practice in Harrisonburg, a very family-oriented community, we see a lot of families with small children. We have questions frequently about how to care for the teeth of children - when should kids first visit the dentist? When should I start brushing my children’s teeth? Is it safe to use fluoride toothpaste?
As I dentist, I know how important it is to start good oral care habits early. Cavities can form even on the tiniest teeth, so regular dental care from the signs of the first baby tooth, as well as parents making smart choices about their child’s diet are so important to lifelong oral health. The most common chronic disease of childhood is dental caries (or cavities), so this is a major health issue for children, and with the growing link between oral health and our overall health, we can never start instilling good habits too early.
Here are some tips, recommendations, and things for parents to think about when it comes to starting off on the right track with children’s dental health.
When to Start?
The sooner the better! Parents can start cleaning their infant’s mouth and gums with a wet washcloth before teeth start to appear. As soon as your child develops his or her first tooth (the lower front tooth, usually around age 6 to 10 months), you should start brushing it with a small, soft toothbrush or specially-designed cleaning device that fits over your finger. The goal is to get your child used to daily tooth care.
Many parents put small children to bed with a bottle or cup of milk, formula, or juice to make bedtime easier. As your child’s first teeth start to come in, start switching to water instead.
There is a very real danger of young children developing “baby bottle decay” as a result of the bedtime milk or juice habit. As these liquids (which contain cavity-causing sugar) bathe the teeth overnight, cavities can start to develop. If this goes unnoticed and untreated, this can quickly lead to very destructive tooth decay in small children.
Beginning to Brush
Once your child has their first tooth in, you can start introducing tooth brushing into their daily routine. We recommend brushing for two minutes, twice a day (after meals). Younger kids will need your help brushing their teeth until they really start to develop good fine motor skills.
In the old days, a rule of thumb was to help your children brush until they learned how to write in cursive. Of course today, I’m not sure cursive is even taught in schools anymore! So you’ll need to monitor your child’s progress and use your judgement. Most kids should be brushing on their own by the 3rd-grade or so.
No matter your child’s age or whether you need to brush for them, you should aim to brush their teeth twice a day, once in the morning after breakfast and once before bed, after the last meal, snack, or drink (of anything besides water). Each brushing session should last 2 minutes-- there are timers and even apps that can help keep time and hold your child’s attention!
Can Kids Use Electric Toothbrushes?
Yes! An electric toothbrush is a great choice for children who can brush on their own. Read my post on choosing an electric toothbrush and look for a model that includes a built-in timer or other features that make thorough brushing easy and fun!
Is Toothpaste Safe?
Once your child’s teeth start coming in, you can use toothpaste when brushing.
I recommend using toothpaste with fluoride, even for kids. Fluoride will help prevent cavities and that’s huge-- especially at a young age.
Parents often ask how much toothpaste children should use. Here’s what I say:
If your child isn’t old enough to spit out the excess toothpaste (usually under the age of 2), use a grain-of-rice sized amount of toothpaste, or just a “smear.”
As your child grows and learns to spit out toothpaste (age 3-6), increase the amount he or she uses to the size of a pea.
What About Flossing?
Just like brushing, it’s good to start building great flossing habits early. So start flossing as soon as possible. Again, you’ll need to floss your children’s teeth until they can handle it themselves, but starting flossing at a young age is worth it. Your children’s teeth and mouth will be healthier and your children will likely have fewer cavities and a reduced risk of gum disease and other health problems later in life.
Choose the Right Foods
Even if you’re helping your children brush and floss properly, you still need to think about the foods and snacks you’re serving them. The rule of thumb is to serve kids a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggie, lean meats, dairy, and breads and cereals.
Some foods that we think of as “healthy” are actually not-so-good for kids’ teeth! Raisins are a great example of this. Even though we tend to think of them as a good snack, they’re actually very sugary and gummy. This means they can stick to teeth and are difficult for kids to remove when they brush. Think about the consistency of foods and avoid the sweet, sticky things.
To keep teeth healthy, kids (and adults) should generally avoid sweets - including candy (especially the sticky, gummy kinds), sodas, sports drinks, and even fruit juices. Kids should drink mostly water and milk.
A few months ago, I wrote about choosing healthy snack foods. When you’re choosing treats and snacks for your kids, look for:
Crunchy raw vegetables, like zucchini and carrots
Nuts, including almonds and pistachios
Firm crisp pears and apples with the skin left on are a great sweet treat
Be a Great Dental Role Model
Believe it or not, the bacteria that cause cavities in children are passed to them from their parents or primary caregiver. Think about how many times you’ve shared spoons with your child or “cleaned off” a dirty pacifier with your own saliva. That’s how it happens! So not only do we pass our genes on to our children, but also our oral bacteria.
That’s why you need to be a great dental role model for your children. If parents are brushing twice a day using the proper technique and flossing regularly, this sets a great example for kids. If you have cavities or gum disease, make sure you treat these problems to minimize the amount of disease-causing bacteria in your mouth that you could be passing along to your kids.
Use brushing time as bonding time and teach your kids how to brush. Show them by example that caring for their teeth and gums is not a chore, and that having healthy clean teeth is something to be proud of. Show them that brushing can be fun!
If your children don’t see you brushing or flossing, do you think they’ll want to take care of their own teeth?
Make an Appointment For You & Your Children
Are you looking for a dentist in the Harrisonburg area? Many of my patients are families with children of all ages. If you’d like to learn more about how I can help you and your children keep their teeth clean and healthy, get in touch!
I’d love to be part of your family’s health.