According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, or AAPD, kids miss more than 51 million school hours per year because of dental problems or related conditions. Early tooth decay, also called “Early Childhood Caries” or ECC, is the single most common chronic disease of childhood.
Good childhood dental health is essential to preventing dental problems in adulthood – and promoting a child’s overall wellbeing. Severe ECC leads to pain and infection and can be very expensive to treat. The earlier a first dental visit is made, the better the chances of preventing future complications.
Start off right – at home
Even before a child is born, moms can start promoting good dental health. Enamel, the outer covering of teeth, is fully formed by the eighth month of pregnancy.
“If the mother has malnutrition, illness, abuses drugs, is on heavy and multiple medications or has complications during pregnancy, the teeth will reflect the lack of nutrition or oxygen with poorly-formed enamel,” says Dr. Jason M. Golnick, DDS, who specializes in pediatric dentistry. His practice, Pediatric Dental Associates, provides dental treatment to infants, children, teens and special-needs patients. Golnick maintains offices in Taylor and West Bloomfield.
Good dental hygiene habits should begin before your child’s first tooth comes in. Wiping your baby’s gums with a soft damp cloth after feedings helps prevent the buildup of bacteria. When teeth appear, use a soft children’s toothbrush twice daily. During the preschool years, parents must assume the task of tooth brushing, Golnick says.
“Children are usually able to brush their teeth well when they are 8 years old,” he notes. Tooth brushing time is a good time to inspect young children’s teeth. Check your child’s teeth regularly for any chalky white or brown spots, which could signal the beginning of tooth decay.
Golnick adds that diet and water preferences have also have a significant impact on cavity formation. “We have definitely seen an increase in tooth decay not only from lack of fluoride in bottled water, but also because of our diet and marketing of high sugar drink products.”
Dentist’s office visits
“First visit by first birthday sums it up,” Golnick says. The American Dental Association also recommends a first dental visit around age 1. The ADA says that visiting the dentist from a young age will help your child become comfortable with his or her dentist. A habit of regular dental check-ups is also established.
“When performing infant oral exams in my office, I always try to stress to the parent what to expect between birthdays, so they are not ‘surprised’ – which can alleviate a lot of anxiety and stress,” notes Golnick. During early dental visits, parents can get answers to questions about normal dental growth and development, or common childhood conditions, such as grinding of teeth.
“The explanation of common principles can often save a parent from taking an unnecessary trip to the pediatrician or emergency room,” Golnick says. “I emphasize prevention and being proactive.”
The AAPD notes that 90 percent of all tooth decay is preventable. To prevent cavities, limit sweet snacks and sugary drinks between meals. Teeth-friendly snacks include fresh fruits and vegetables, and cheese and crackers.
“Proper preventive care, fluoridation use and a balanced diet are key to the oral and overall health of every child,” says former AAPD president Phil H. Hunke, a doctor of dental surgery. “When kids are exposed to sugar for extended periods, they are at a higher risk of tooth decay. If left untreated, this puts these young children at increased risk for pain and infection, which can lead to missed school, lost sleep and loss of appetite.”
Golnick tells parents to inform their child’s caretakers to follow the AAPD guidelines. “I had to explain to a parent how, even though they are doing everything correctly as to feeding and brushing, the person who watches the child throughout the day cannot let them chew on gummy bears all day long,” he says.
Children with healthy teeth can chew food well, speak clearly and share their precious smiles. It’s never too early to begin good health habits.
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This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated for 2016.