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 ailments. In fact, it’s four times more common than childhood obesity, five times more common than asthma and 20 times more common than diabetes. And 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, a significant factor behind tooth decay. But whether your child is cavity-free or all-too-familiar with fillings, you can help encourage better dental health, starting today.
In the Beginning: Ages Birth-5
The first tiny teeth generally appear around 6 months, but parents can begin caring for baby teeth before they even show up. Use a clean, damp washcloth to clean off residual food and milk after feedings and before bed. This helps introduce the idea and sensations of tooth brushing, and helps keep gums clean and healthy, says pediatric dentist Kate Lambert.
“Babies and toddlers thrive on a fun, simple and regular routine,” says Lambert. “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. 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 (available through the Miami-Dade Public Library system) or Sesame Street Ready Set Brush! can help little ones who need a distraction to get the job done.
Straight Talk: Ages 6-12
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 7, and that some children sport braces by age 8. But second grade isn’t too early for braces, says pediatric dentist Kim K. McFarland, particularly for children with overbites, cross-bites or other types of jaw misalignment.
Early orthodontic treatment is timed to correct these issues early in a child’s growth, so that their 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 or is financially able 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.
Clean Sweep: Ages 13-18
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 even more 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 soda and candy,” notes Lambert.
Because teens are largely focused on their appearance and attractiveness, a gentle reminder about the appeal of fresh breath may motivate them to practice more thorough, regular brushing and flossing. Use a dry erase marker on the bathroom mirror to occasionally post reminders to brush and floss, and seek out YouTube 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. “Explaining how cavities form in detail can help compel your children to make better dental care choices.”