Super Smiles: Keep Kids’ Teeth Gleaming

Super Smiles: Keep Kids’ Teeth Gleaming

By Malia Jacobson

If your child is sporting a cavity or two, they’re not alone. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease, far surpassing other childhood ailments: It’s four times more common than childhood obesity, five times more common than asthma, and 20 times more common than diabetes. Some children are especially prone to cavities—research in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry shows that over 70 percent of childhood cavities are found in 8 percent of children—possibly due to an overbalance of Streptococcus mutans bacteria in the mouth. Whether your child is cavity-free or all-too-familiar with fillings, you can help encourage better dental health, starting today. Here’s help.

Good Beginnings

The first tiny teeth generally appear around six months, but parents can begin caring for baby teeth before they even appear. Use a clean, damp washcloth to clean off residual food and milk after feedings and before bed. This helps introduce the idea of and the sensations of tooth brushing, and helps keeps the gums clean and healthy, says Kate Lambert, DDS, of Spangler, Rohlfing & Lambert Pediatric Dentistry in Winston-Salem and Kernersville, North Carolina.
“Babies and toddlers thrive on a fun, simple, and regular routine. It’s vital to brush before bed, since that removes all the plaque and food from the day which could increase the risk of cavities during sleep,” she says. “I always talk to my families about making it part of the bedtime routine. Bath, book, bottle, brush and bed!” Singing a song or reading a special book while brushing, like Brush, Brush, Brush! by Alicia Padron or Sesame Street Ready Set Brush! can help little ones who need a little distraction to get the job done.

Brace Race

That first orthodontist visit—or even braces—may not be as far off as you think. Parents are often surprised to learn that an orthodontic consult is recommended around age seven, and some children are sporting brackets by age eight. Second grade isn’t too early for braces, says Kim K. McFarland, DDS, MHSA, of Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Nebraska, particularly for children with overbites, cross-bites, or other types of jaw misalignment. Early orthodontic treatment is timed to correct these issues early in the child’s growth, so that a child’s dental arches and teeth will grow more symmetrically during the natural growth spurt that occurs around age 10. Early braces usually mean two sets of braces, the first between ages 8 and 10 and the second around age 12.
This route isn’t for everyone; braces necessitate excellent brushing habits (parents of reluctant brushers, take note) and not every family wants to commit to two courses of orthodontic treatment. As an alternative to early braces, McFarland says, parents can ask about less invasive pediatric appliances to help guide growth during these formative elementary years.

TEEN YEARS: Ages 13-18
Clean Scene

The transition to independence can mean more cavities for teens, says Lambert. Over half of teens have had at least one cavity, and 13 percent have untreated decay. But because teens have their permanent teeth—the final baby teeth usually fall out by age 13—good dental hygiene is especially important. “Teenagers have an increased risk for cavities for a number of reasons, including less parental guidance when completing home care, braces which can be more difficult to clean, and more independent diet choices, such as sodas and candy,” she notes.
Because teens also care about their attractiveness, a gentle reminder about the appeal of fresh breath may motivate more thorough, regular brushing and flossing. Use a dry erase marker on the bathroom mirror to occasionally remind teens to brush and floss; seek out You Tube videos to demonstrate how unhealthy habits like smoking, chewing sugary gum, or sipping soda can impact the way their teeth look and feel for years to come, recommends Lambert. “Teens are smart, so explaining how cavities form in detail can help motivate them to make better choices!” 
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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