A recent expose in the New York Times revealed a sad state for younger children’s dental health: cavities, crowns, root canals—all in baby teeth of children as young as 3 years old. For the first time in 40 years, the Center for Disease Controland Prevention noted a rise in the number of preschoolers with cavities. With more municipalities providing fluoridated water than ever before in U.S. history, we have to ask: What’s going on here?
The American Dental Association (ADA) points to a perfect storm of 24-hours/day snacking, direct marketing of sweets and junk food to the preschool set, too much sipping on juice and sweet drinks at bedtime, drinking bottled water instead of fluoridated tap water and a general confusion about proper care of young teeth.
The good news is that this trend is entirely preventable, and you can take the power to ensure healthy teeth in your kids.
You’ve Got to Be Cruel to Be Kind
The easiest—and hardest—thing to do is to just say “no.” Don’t let your kids sip for endless hours on juice in a sippy cup or juice box. Bacteria in your child’s mouth use natural sugars in these drinks as food. These bacteria then produce acids that attack teeth. According to the ADA, each time your child drinks these liquids, acids attack for 20 minutes or longer. After multiple attacks, children’s teeth will decay.
Juice and milk should be served in regular drinking cups at the kitchen table and not toted around for hours in a sippy cup. Serve only water in sippy cups. If your child complains she is thirsty, water should suffice. And use tap water—most cities fluoridate their water, providing built-in protection for young teeth. Use bottled water only when tap water is unavailable.
Be sure to brush your preschooler’s teeth. You can have them “brush” at the start to practice, but children under 4 just don’t have the dexterity and brushing skills to do a good job by themselves. One analogy an ADA dentist uses when parents plead that their child screams when they brush their teeth: “I’d much rather have a kid cry with a soft toothbrush than when I have to drill a cavity.”
Take Your Toddler to the Dentist
The ADA currently recommends you take your 1-year-old to the dentist for a preliminary dental health check, even if all their teeth aren’t in yet. Take them back at 2 years, and start regular 6-month checkups at 3 years.
Sadly, a lot of new parents don’t get this information easily. Pediatricians may neglect mentioning dental health, and disagreements over what age a first checkup should happen are common.
Fluoride Is Your Friend
In addition to providing fluoridated tap water to your growing tot, be sure to start using fluoride toothpaste at 1 year. There is a lot of misinformation online about fluoride being toxic to preschoolers and that parents should only use “natural,” baking-soda based toothpastes for kids under 5. This may temporarily brighten their smile, but it won’t fight enamel-eating bacteria or strengthen teeth. Many new parents are scared that using fluoride toothpaste will cause white spots on their children’s adult teeth. Again, this happens only in extreme cases. Just be sensible: only use a dab of toothpaste for kids under 2 and a pea-sized amount for those over 2.
The proven truth is: the healthier your kids’ baby teeth are, the stronger their adult teeth will be. So take care of your kids’ baby teeth. Sometimes that may involve being the bad guy by denying fruit drinks and snacks and suffering through screams while brushing their teeth. But sometimes being a good parent means being unpopular for a while. Eventually they will thank you with their glowing adult smiles.
Here are some steps you can take to ensure the oral health of your child:
- Protect teeth with fluoride: Have your child drink tap water and use fluoride toothpaste.
- Take your child to the dentist around his or her first birthday for an assessment of cavity risk, even if the child has only a few teeth.
- Help your kids under 4 brush their teeth. For kids under 2 use a small amount of fluoride toothpaste; for kids over 2 use a pea-sized amount.
- Ask your dentist about sealants.
- Eat a healthy diet and avoid snacking as much as possible.
- Encourage drinking milk (or unsweetened soymilk) or water. Avoid juice boxes and sports drinks — don’t even have them in the house!
For more news stories on this subject, follow these links:
- Why More Preschoolers Are Going Under the Dentist’s Drill (Time.com)
- The Preschool Cavity Epidemic (Motherlode, The New York Times)
- Preschoolers Plagued by Cavities (The Nightly News, Msnbc.com)
- Preschool Mouths: Dental Disaster Zones (ABC News)