As soon as teeth appear–typically around the age of six months–our children’s teeth are at risk of decay. Unfortunately, even my littlest dental patients are susceptible to tooth decay. Often referred to as baby bottle tooth decay, it’s most common in the upper front teeth, although other teeth can be affected, and in some cases the teeth cannot be saved, requiring removal.
While our children are always eager to gain their independence, I always remind my patients that instilling good dental habits in kids needs to happen consistently and at an early age. Habit is the keyword here. By repeating and reinforcing good oral hygiene habits you can help your children have healthier mouths in their adult years.
Infants and Toddlers
Dental care should begin right after birth; while you won’t be using a toothbrush yet, you should start wiping the gums with a clean, moist gauze pad or washcloth. The first baby teeth, typically the front four, don’t come in until between 6 months to 12-14 months but decay can begin as soon as they appear.
By the age of three, most children will have their full set of 20 baby teeth. The teething process isn’t fun and some babies become fussy, sleepless or irritable, and may lose their appetite or drool more than usual. You’ll likely find a few soothing tactics that you’ll come to appreciate during this period, as an unhappy baby isn’t unusual during teething. However, if they have a fever or diarrhea, or extended cranky moods and discomfort, you should talk to your doctor.
Once teeth have started to come in, caregivers should begin gently brushing with a small amount of fluoride toothpaste. No more than a smear or grain of rice should be used and you should ensure that they are spitting out the excess. Brushing should be done twice daily (morning and night) unless otherwise directed by your dentist or physician. When their teeth begin to touch you should start cleaning and flossing between the teeth.
When your children are beginning to brush on their own, you should continue to supervise them to ensure proper technique and that they are using the right amount of toothpaste.
As your children reach the 3-6 age range, you can increase the amount of toothpaste to the size of a pea; continue to supervise their brushing activities and remind them not to swallow the paste. Once they can tie their own shoes or write their name, they should be capable of brushing their own teeth.
Their first dental visit should occur as soon as their first tooth arrives or no later than their first birthday, you may be surprised by how soon that will come! While we’re used to fussy patients, I like to remind parents that while these early visits are to examine your child’s mouth and check their development, it’s also to establish habits and positive experiences in the dental chair. Remember hating visiting the dentist as a kid? Here are some tips to make visits more positive for your little family members:
- Consider making morning appointments. Kids are typically more well-rested and cooperative in the morning. Pack yourself a to-go mug of coffee and get it done early in the day – you’ll thank yourself in the afternoon!
- Try to keep your anxiety or concerns to yourself. Children are very perceptive, especially with emotions, so emphasizing the positive elements will help ensure you don’t pass on your dental office fears.
- Never use visits to the dentist as a threat or punishment! While it may be tempting to use visits to the dentist as a consequence of inadequate dental care, this can have a negative impact on their perception of dental care. On the flip side - try to avoid associating dental visits with the bribes; try to establish dental care and regular visits as part of a dental and health routine.
- Talk to them about visiting the dentist so they feel comfortable and understand what they can expect.
If you’re having challenges with getting your children to participate in a regular daily dental routine, try to find a solution for the reason they’re skipping the toothbrush. Try to find a mildly flavoured paste that your child enjoys and keep in mind that pastes with a clean, tingly sensation might feel overpowering and burning to sensitive young mouths. If routine is the issue, make use of children’s love of play and make dental care a game. For younger children, imitation games can alight their sense of play while enforcing good habits; older children may require a reward or point system.
While your teens are the most adamant about their ability to take care of themselves, these family members might need a gentle nudge now and again too. A Gallup survey found that 64 percent of kids age 12 to 17 brush the recommended two times a day. Two percent, the poll found, don't brush at all.
The good news? While many teens forget to think long-term, you can often appeal to their vanity to encourage better dental hygiene. Big picture problems like plaque buildup, decay and tooth loss, root canals or larger health problems might not resonate with them but they’ll likely take more consideration of discolouration or bad breath. If they still think you’re out to lunch, try enlisting your dentist for some objective advice – a refresher from someone other than their parents might help keep their attention (we even have pictures to back us up).
Parenting can be challenging but dental care doesn’t have to be. Establishing oral hygiene as part of a core routine and emphasizing a positive attitude around dental care are the keys to setting them up for excellent lifelong health.