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Oral care for children: Building Good Habits Early

Tooth loss is not inevitable. Advancements in dental care have made it much more likely that healthy teeth can be maintained for a lifetime. According to the American Dental Association, tooth loss among people between the ages of 55 and 64 has dropped by 60 percent since 1960. The earlier children learn to take proper care of their teeth, the better the chances they will develop habits that will serve them well throughout their lives — and they’ll be more likely to keep their teeth throughout adulthood.

The battle against tooth decay begins when teeth appear and lasts as long as teeth are present. Some adults may be under the impression that tooth decay in children isn’t important because the teeth will eventually be replaced with adult teeth. Not so. Deciduous (baby) teeth play a strong role in the development of healthy adult teeth. Also, dangerous infections can occur in decaying teeth, and if untreated, these infections can be fatal.

Parents should start brushing a child’s teeth as soon as they appear, and should begin flossing for the child by age 4. By age 8, most children will be able to floss for themselves. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush and a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Make sure your child doesn’t swallow the paste, and be sure to use an ADA-accepted fluoridated toothpaste.

James J. White, D.D.S., says children should start seeing a dentist at age 3.

"Introduce them to the hygienist," White said. "Show them that these visits are not threatening."

Start children on visits to the dentist early, White said, so the proper growth and development of their teeth can be monitored. The importance of keeping a close eye on tooth development is why White also recommends that children see the same practitioner for as long as possible, ideally throughout their lives.

It’s important to stay involved with a child’s oral hygiene, White said. Getting children to brush and floss can be a battle of wills, but ultimately the parent is responsible.

"Adults have to reinforce oral hygiene," White said. "They have to exercise vigilance. I’m not afraid to go on the record as saying that rampant tooth decay in children is a form of child abuse."

The CDC recommends dental sealants for children. Sealants are protective coatings on the chewing surfaces of molars, which is where tooth decay most commonly develops.

The two main problems children face are poor diet and poor oral care, White said.

First, make sure they are drinking fluoridated water. The ADA has been advocating the fluoridation of public water supplies for more than 50 years. Tap water is routinely fluoridated. Most bottled water is not, although there are fluoridated brands available. (For a list of companies that produce fluoridated water in bottles, go to www.bottledwater.org.)

Children with lots of disposable cash may be tempted to spend it on soda and candy. "All of us want to have that," White said. "It’s OK to have that. Just be sure to brush within 20 minutes. Carbohydrates will turn to acid in about 20 minutes, and acid promotes tooth decay. Rinsing within 20 minutes will help, but brushing is best."

Juices and sports drinks are not the best things to give to children.

"The best thing to drink is water," White said. "There are flavored waters available that contain no sugar, no carbohydrates."

White recommends a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein with minimal carbohydrates to promote good dental health.

Soda should be avoided. "Soda is a big issue," White said. "It’s everywhere." Even diet soda can lead to tooth decay because it is acidic.

Sugarless gum is best. "It’s just common sense," White said.

Fluoridated rinses are not a substitute for poor brushing and flossing habits. "I’m not a big advocate of fluoridated rinses," White said.

The time and effort spent on developing good oral care habits in children will pay great dividends in the future in the form of lower dental care costs and better health.

"We all want beautiful smiles and healthy mouths, especially as adults," White said. "I want every patient to have a sound, healthy tooth structure throughout life. Their efforts make my job easier. My goal is to not have to treat patients at all."

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