February is not just a time to show love to your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day, it also marks National Children’s Dental Health Month. This month-long national health observance, sponsored by the American Dental Association, is designed to raise public awareness about the importance of children’s oral health.
To help promote the benefits of establishing good oral health habits at an early age, the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) offers parents, caregivers and teachers these five tips:
• Oral health care should start from day one. It’s essential to begin oral health care as soon as your baby is born. Clean his or her gums gently with a clean gauze pad or washcloth after each feeding. Parents should brush their baby’s teeth gently with a soft-bristled toothbrush and a small amount of water as soon as the first tooth appears, typically between six months and one year.
• Children’s teeth should be brushed for at least two minutes, at least twice a day. While it is okay to let children “take a turn,” parents should do the actual brushing until manual dexterity is good enough to do an effective job in removing all plaque on the teeth. Use a fluoridated toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush. And brushing alone does not remove the food particles and plaque that builds up between the teeth, so flossing is critical. Flossing should occur as soon as the teeth are close together and any two are touching, usually by the age of four. Using a smooth-coated, mint-flavored floss will appeal more to young mouths.
• Certain foods and drinks can affect children’s teeth more than others. Sticky candy and snacks like gummy worms, licorice, fruit snacks and even raisins have a high sugar content and are the worst offenders when it comes to causing tooth decay, otherwise known as cavities. Excessive consumption of soda and sweetened sports drinks can also cause decay. Children should drink water, low-fat milk, and all-natural fruit juices. Also be mindful of sugary chewing gum. If you let your child chew gum, it should always be sugar-free. The best gum to chew has xylitol, which has been shown to help prevent cavities.
• There’s no need to be overly nervous about the oral implications of thumb sucking and pacifier use. These are common habits and a normal, soothing reflex for babies and toddlers. Most children will stop sucking their thumb between the ages of 2 and 4, and typically no harm is done to their teeth or jaws. However, some children who repeatedly suck on a finger or a pacifier for long periods of time may push their upper front teeth toward their lip, or their front teeth may not come in properly. Positive measures, such as praise or small, non-food rewards such as stickers, should be given to encourage children to stop. Negative reinforcement or constant nagging by parents can have the opposite effect.
• Regular dental visits will help avoid potential problems. Dental visits are very important to ensure that children’s teeth are coming in properly and do not show signs of decay. Children should receive an examination and cleaning by their dentist every six months to avoid potential problems. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that a child’s first visit to the dentist should be six months after the eruption of the first tooth, or by the age of 1. However, if parents have a specific concern, they should not hesitate to contact their dentist prior to this guideline.
“Attitudes and habits established at an early age are critical to maintaining good oral health throughout life,” says MDS President Dr. Howard Zolot. “Dental decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease in the United States. With good nutrition, proper care, and regular dental visits, children can maintain healthy mouths—and healthy smiles.”
Visit massdental.org/baby-oral-health to download The Mouths of Babes brochure, and follow #NCDHM on social media for more children’s oral health tips.