February is National Children’s Dental Month, a great time to consider the importance of preventive dental care for kids. Almost a quarter of children under five have cavities, and more than half of children between the ages of six and eight have experienced tooth decay. If you wait until dental problems are severe and painful, treatment can become complicated, expensive, and stressful. The best way to give your kids a healthy smile is to teach them good habits and to take them to the dentist for regular check-ups.
Healthy Habits Start Early
From the time they are six months old to when they’re about seven, children need help brushing their teeth. As a parent, you should start brushing your child’s teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste as soon as their baby teeth come in, usually between 6 and 12 months old. Since our community’s water isn’t fluoridated, consider asking your dentist about the benefits of a fluoride supplement. You’ll also want to begin flossing three times a week as soon as your child has two teeth that are closely touching. When children reach the age of six, they begin to have the dexterity to brush for themselves.
In addition to brushing and flossing, helping toddlers move away from the bottle after their first birthday is important to maintaining good dental health. “Nursing bottle caries” is a term that refers to tooth decay in young children that develops as a result of using a bottle for long periods of time. Teeth that have prolonged contact with sugars from milk, formula, or juice can begin to decay. It’s best to finish feeding before bed, then brushing and wiping your baby’s teeth, rather than putting them to bed with a bottle.
What you eat and how you eat also plays a major role in dental health, especially as children get older. Foods and drinks full of carbohydrates, such as juice, are often marketed as healthy even though they’re packed with sugar. And, eating at regularly scheduled times instead of snacking all day gives the mouth time to stay clean in between meals. When your children do enjoy a treat or eat something rich in carbohydrates, give them a glass of water afterwards to help clean their teeth.
Even when practicing the above habits, children should see a dentist for routine checkups every six months. It’s impossible to identify most dental problems at home until they’ve become much more serious. Preventive care is key to keeping your kids’ teeth healthy.
Also, accidents happen. If your child ever loses an adult tooth, typically after age six, don’t panic! Place the tooth in a small container with milk, water, or some of your child’s saliva to keep it from drying out and dying, and the tooth can be reimplanted — but only if you get to the dentist within an hour.
Dental Health Affects Wellbeing
I can’t overstate the importance of a beaming smile — it’s the reason I became a dentist! When kids have unhealthy teeth, they can become reluctant to socialize with other children, which affects their long-term development. Any discomfort or pain will hinder their ability to focus and learn in school. Preventive dentistry allows kids to thrive. We want kids to be happy, confident, and smiling — not worried about their teeth.
And it all starts with baby teeth. Even though they mostly fall out by age 12, kids need those teeth to be healthy. Baby teeth can develop deep cavities that cause intense pain and even lead to infections that can harm adult teeth that haven’t come in yet. And if baby teeth fall out too soon, the dental arch can collapse, resulting in teeth coming in crooked. Treat those baby teeth like they’ll be around forever!
Federally qualified health centers like MCHC Health Centers are here to make sure that all kids have access to dental care. Children make up about half of MCHC’s dental practice, where we use a special exam room with toys to keep them distracted. After routine visits, we provide a take-home kit that encourages them to care for their teeth at home.
The most important message to take away is: don’t wait until your kids are in pain to see a dentist. Your first visit should be about the time your baby’s first tooth emerges. With a few good habits and regular check-ups, your child can have what every kid deserves: a bright smile full of confidence!
Neha Sharma, DDS, is the dental director at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental, and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.