Healthy, Happy Teeth: Tips For Your Child's Best Dental Health

by Dr. Doyle Williams

What’s five times more common than asthma among children yet almost 100 percent preventable? Tooth decay.

Deemed a “silent epidemic” among today’s children, tooth decay can have serious effects on physical and educational development. Pain, irregular permanent teeth and impeded nutritional intake can result in problems with speech, depressed immune systems and overall educational attainment.

In fact, the CDC reports 51 million school hours are lost each year because of dental-related illness. So what can parents do?

February marks National Children's Dental Health Month, an important opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of good oral health in our children – and about the importance of prevention. Prevention is about understanding risk factors and using measures to help prevent diseases, rather than treating them.

Below are some preventive tips. I hope you read through them thoughtfully on behalf of your child.

  1. Watch Your Mouth Around The Children

No, it’s not just what you say—it’s about cavities. Most people don’t know very young children can “catch” cavities from parents. That’s because babies are born with no bacteria colonies in their mouths and one of the things that determines the ratio of helpful verses harmful bacteria is environmental exposure. Adults who have had cavities in the past have cavity-causing bacteria in their mouths and can transmit these bacteria by sharing spoons or food and cleaning pacifiers in their mouths.

After about 18 months, the ratio of helpful versus harmful bacteria is set in stone for the rest of the child’s life—leaving some kids with increased risk for cavities simply because their parents had, proverbially speaking, “dirty mouths.”

If you aren’t already receiving regular 6-month dental check-ups, it’s time to start doing so. You’re not only bettering your own oral health, but that of your kids. Expectant mothers are especially vulnerable to gum disease because of elevated hormone levels, so it’s best to make a trip to the dentist.

Avoid Giving Bed-Time Sippy Cups or Bottles

Does your child go to bed with a sippy cup or bottle? Milk, juice or other sweet drinks at bedtime allow sugars to linger in a child’s mouth for long periods of time and lead to a condition known as Early Childhood Caries, or ECC. ECC is an aggressive, infectious dental disease that can destroy the teeth of very young children. Left untreated, ECC can lead to pain and infection, making eating difficult. Hungry bellies and sleepless nights from toothaches can lead to learning and speech problems in school – and missed school days.

Dental professionals advise against giving sippy cups and bottles with sugary drinks right before bed because they can contribute to the development of ECC.

Water Provides Adequate Rehydration for Sports

Many children drink citrus juices and sports drinks before, during or after physical activity. These drinks can do serious damage to teeth. And it’s not the sugar – it’s the acid. The citric and ascorbic acid in most citrus juices and sports drinks eats away at enamel. This can especially pose a problem to those children that tend to sip and swish drinks in their mouths. If they drink a citrus juice or sports drink, they should drink it in one sitting so it does not linger in the mouth. And if possible, they should rinse their mouths with water afterward.

Not All Water is Created Equal.

Children drink bottled water for various reasons – a convenient means of hydration in school or on the sports field. But bottled water may not have an adequate amount of fluoride, a natural mineral that helps prevent tooth decay and promotes overall oral health. Fluoride can occur naturally in source waters used for bottling or it can be added. If children are not drinking bottled water with fluoride, they should make sure to brush with fluoride toothpaste (at least twice daily) and talk to their dentist about regular fluoride varnish applications.

Developing good habits at an early age helps children get a head start on a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums.

Dr. Doyle Williams is Chief Dental Officer of DentaQuest and an associate professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.