A child’s dental health is set in motion before her first baby tooth sprouts. That means you should start promoting healthy dental habits for your kid from day one — and keep on encouraging her until she leaves for college (or, hey, even longer).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 19 percent of kids between the ages of 2 and 19 have untreated cavities. However, childhood tooth decay can be prevented in the first place when parents help their kids avoid bad dental habits (and foster good ones). “Oral and dental health habits, both good and bad, are formed early,” explains Richard P. Dugas, DDS, a pediatric dental specialist in Bourne, Mass.
To get your kids’ teeth off to a healthy start, avoid these dental-health no-nos.
The No. 1 no-no is waiting until there is a problem before bringing your child to the dentist. The American Dental Association suggests that kids visit the dentist within six months after their first tooth appears and no later than their first birthday. During that first visit, your baby’s dentist will look for cavities and other oral problems, assess tooth decay risk, and instruct you on the proper ways to clean your baby’s teeth.
After the first visit, your child should continue to have regular check-ups at least every six months. If he is at increased risk of tooth decay, his dentist may recommend more frequent visits.
When you’re nursing a newborn, around-the-clock feedings are more than OK — they’re necessary for the baby’s health. However, once your baby’s teeth begin to show, you may want to avoid those middle-of-the-night feedings.
Lactose, which is the main sugar in breast milk, provides about 40 percent of a breastfed baby’s calories. Baby teeth can become decayed if overexposed to breast milk at night because of that sugar. “Mothers who continue to breastfeed when baby teeth come in must be willing to clean their baby’s mouth after feeding,” explains Dr. Dugas. In fact, he recommends that you wash or wipe away the milk left in the baby’s mouth after everyfeeding.
Called “bottle mouth” by some doctors, pitting and discoloration on the teeth can be a result of nighttime bottle-feeding. If the mouth isn’t cleaned, sugar from the milk or juice will remain on the teeth for a long time at night and can eventually eat away at the enamel. So think twice before lulling a baby to sleep with a bottle full of milk or any liquid containing sugar.
Once your child graduates to a sippy cup, avoid this bad oral health habit: Letting him carry it around all day or take it to bed at night (for the same reasons that using a bottle this way is unhealthy). “Constantly sipping milk, juice, or any sweetened liquid does not give a child’s natural saliva a chance to rinse away sugars that cause tooth decay,” Dugas says. In fact, New York legislature was recently approved for adding warnings about childhood tooth-decay to sippy cups.
For the best dental health, limit sippy cups to mealtime and snack time — and have your child swish and swallow with water after drinking any sugary drink.
Fluoride — the natural cavity fighter — is good for your kids’ teeth. In fact, in communities that do not have enough fluoride in the water system (which can be determined by contacting the local health department), dentists may suggest fluoride supplements starting at six months old.
But too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, a condition that creates white or brown spots on kids’ teeth. So while gooey toothpaste can be fun to play with, it’s important to teach your children not to swallow it — especially if it contains fluoride.
“Until your child is old enough to be able to spit after brushing, you can use non-fluoride toothpaste specially made for kids’ teeth,” says Dugas. “Just make sure they’re getting the right amount of fluoride with a fluoride supplement.”
For babies and small children, a little thumb sucking is normal — and it probably won’t cause any damage until permanent teeth have replaced the baby teeth.
However, once the permanent teeth start coming in — usually somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6 — thumb sucking can cause a misalignment of the teeth, which can lead to a number of issues, such as difficulty chewing. If your child won’t stop sucking her thumb, you should let your dentist know. “Most children will grow out of it by about age 4, but if your child continues, behavior modification with a reward system will usually break this habit,” Dugas says.
Just like thumb sucking, sucking on a pacifier is a perfectly normal and healthy baby habit. However, pacifier use (just like thumb sucking) can also affect a child’s oral health by interfering with normal tooth and jaw development.
Pacifying into the toddler years can be a tough habit to break — the best time to stop allowing your baby to use a pacifier is at about age 1 to safeguard baby teeth, says Dugas.
Once your child’s off to school (she grew up so fast!), don’t be surprised if you see her with a No. 2 pencil in her mouth — this bad dental habit is all too common in school kids.
“In addition to introducing bacteria into the mouth, this habit can cause wearing away of tooth surfaces and can lead to dangerous oral trauma if a child falls while having a pen or pencil in the mouth,” warns Dugas. Most children can break this habit once they are old enough to understand the dangers.
About 30 to 60 percent of children and young teens bite their nails, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). Nail biting is not only bad for the nails — it can cause serious damage to a child’s dental health.
In fact, AGD warns that nail biting increases a child’s risk for bruxism, which is unintentional teeth grinding. In turn, bruxism can lead to facial pain and sensitive teeth. The best way to break this habit is to explain the dangers to your child and find alternatives and rewards.
Carbonated sugary colas and soft drinks are bad for everybody’s teeth, but they are particularly hard on newly erupted kids’ teeth. Unfortunately, statistics show that about 20 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds are exposed to these drinks every day. Don’t let your child develop a soft drink habit.
“Good parenting is the key to a child’s dental health,” says Dugas. “Give your child a healthy start to oral health with safe and nutritious food and beverage choices.”