Good dental care for kids starts early, yields health benefits

01/21/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:21 AM

Caring for your baby’s teeth – as soon as the first one appears – will go a long way to keeping your child healthy.

Started early, good dental care practices help children get used to having a toothbrush and floss in their mouths, said Chad Hoge, a Grand Forks, N.D., pediatric dentist.

They also help counteract the damage that sugar can do to kids’ teeth.

“Children are typically exposed to sugary foods and sugary drinks early on,” he said. “Diet and oral hygiene at home are the biggest factors” in preventing dental problems down the road.

The marketplace is full of dental care products created especially for kids, “like a toothbrush with Shrek on it,” he said, “anything to make it more fun.”

Usually, the first tooth appears at 7 or 8 months of age, Hoge said. Most often it’s the front incisor on the bottom, although some develop earlier and some later.

Parents who aren’t comfortable putting a toothbrush in their baby’s mouth could instead use a rubber fingertip device to clean teeth.

Depending on how the child is taking to brushing, “at about age 3 years, you can let them do a little bit of brushing on their own,” he said. “But we want the parent to go in afterwards and go over it again” to ensure that the job is done thoroughly.

Children aren’t able to brush their teeth well until age 9, he said.

He doesn’t recommend that children use any type of mouthwash until they are older than 6. Until then, “they may not be able to swish everything out,” he said.

To best way for a child to learn good habits of dental care depends on the parents’ determination to establish a routine, he said.

“We have a 3-year-old, and it’s a challenge for us sometimes,” he said. “Not every night are they going to want to brush their teeth.”

To convey the importance of a routine, he said: “We say, ‘This is what we do: We get up, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth. And at night, before bed, we brush our teeth.’”

Early dental visit

Sometimes, parents wait until the child is 3 or 4, he said, “but by then (the child) could have a problem, and we could have prevented it. … We want parents to understand that it’s good to bring a child in early.”

Hoge suggests that parents schedule a child’s first dental visit at 12 months old, following the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

“Typically, we start seeing kids at 1 year old,” he said. “Parents come in with questions.”

Many “don’t know how often we need to brush teeth and start flossing,” he said.

The first visit “is a short appointment – more of an educational visit,” he said. Under age 3, “a kid has trouble sitting in a chair too long.”

A dental exam can be stressful for children.

“For a child to cry a little bit in the chair is OK; we’re equipped to deal with it,” Hoge said.

He and other dentists in the clinic teach parents how to brush their children’s teeth, using a “knee-to-knee” examination in which the dentist and parent face each other, knees to knees, with the child facing the parent and leaning his head back to the dentist.

Comfort level

Early visits give dentists a chance “to talk to parents about changes we’d like to see in the habits being formed at home,” Hoge said, among them, putting a child to bed with a bottle of milk or juice.

At bedtime, after teeth-brushing and -cleaning, children “should stick with water,” he said, “and avoid snacking.”

He encourages parents to limit snacks to no more than three times a day and to not let children “drink juice throughout the day,” he said. “Don’t have your child walk around with a cup of juice.

“If they do drink it, it should only be during meals.”

A lot of his younger patients “are taking in juice and stickier foods, like gummy bears and fruit roll-ups,” Hoge said. These foods “usually have sugar and acids in them that cause damage to the teeth.

“If (parents) are not comfortable getting in there with brushing, the (food) sits there forever. It could be 6 or 7 hours before brushing (is done) at bedtime.”

These habits could result in tooth decay, he said.

Left untreated, “a cavity can enlarge and cause discomfort,” and cause the child to miss school or have trouble sleeping, he said. Or worse, “it can cause an abscess or an infection.”

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