What can you do to keep your child's teeth healthy? Answers to your most pressing dental questions, for babies on up:
Q: What's the best way to keep my child from getting cavities?
Kids should brush at least twice a day and, ideally, after snacking, too. The health of your child's teeth is largely dependent on:
The kind of food in your child's diet – and how frequently she eats it – matters. When sugar and starch meet up with normal bacteria in the mouth, they can create acids that dissolve the tooth's structure and cause cavities. The more a child eats sugar and starches (processed snacks are the worst offenders), the more often her teeth are exposed to the acids. Eating regular healthy meals, rather than lots of small portions throughout the day, and drinking water (the fluoridated kind, for kids older than 1), will help prevent acids from settling on the teeth and stave off tooth decay. While a no-snack rule is unrealistic, offer more fruits and vegetables, as opposed to processed treats.
Keep in mind that the most important time to brush is before a nap or bedtime because saliva production slows during sleep (it's linked to blood pressure and heart rate), giving acids far more opportunity to damage teeth
Q:At what age should I start taking my child to the dentist? And how often should he/she go?
Babies should see the dentist within six months of their first tooth's appearance (usually around 6 months of age), and no later than age 1. Stick to that time frame and your child may need fewer fillings than kids who wait until age 2 or 3, says a recent study. At the visit, as long as there are no major problems, the dentist will typically count and inspect your child's teeth (or tooth!), start to get him used to the office and staff, and talk with you about preventive care. The main goal is that a child has a happy and comfortable experience. The rule of thumb is to bring your child back every six months or so for a routine cleaning and checkup.
Q: Are electric toothbrushes a good idea for kids?
They can be helpful for children who aren't yet coordinated enough to brush thoroughly with a manual toothbrush (kids under 4 sometimes aren't). They also often come with a two-minute timer that lets your child know when she can stop brushing. If you choose an electric model, make sure your child doesn't apply too much pressure when she's using it. If she does, the head of the toothbrush may not rotate and won't be as effective. No matter which kind of brush you pick, be sure that she's getting to those hard-to-reach places in the back of her mouth; this might require a little extra help from you until she's 5 or 6 years old.
Q: Should my child get dental sealants to prevent cavities?
They're no substitute for good oral hygiene. But sealants – thin plastic barriers that are painted onto the chewing surface of the back teeth – can help fend off decay if your child has deep grooves in his molars. Bacteria, plaque, and food particles can get into those grooves and are difficult to remove with a toothbrush. Though some research supports using sealants as a routine part of dental care for babies, baby teeth are less likely to be heavily grooved, If some (or all) of your child's permanent teeth are in, talk to your dentist about whether he recommends sealants. There's no drilling or anesthetic required, they won't show when your child talks or smiles, and they aren't painful – though he may be able to feel them with his tongue at first.
Q: I see a lot of natural toothpastes in the store these days that don't contain fluoride. Are they OK for kids to use?
While fluoride protects enamel, non-fluoridated toothpastes are best for kids who can't yet spit. Why? Swallowing fluoride and getting too much of it can lead to fluorosis, which causes stains on the enamel of permanent teeth. (What's most important, whichever toothpaste you choose, is the action of brushing teeth, which does most of the cleaning.) When your child's old enough to spit, talk to your dentist; she may be getting plenty of fluoride through tap water, fluoride treatments, and food. Also note: Infants under 1 do not need fluoride and are particularly vulnerable to fluorosis.
Q: Is it true that chewing Xylitol gum can help reduce the risk of tooth decay?
Yes. The physical motion of chewing produces more saliva, which helps neutralize pH balance to prevent cavities. And studies have shown that Xylitol, a natural sweetener that tastes like sugar, may suppress the growth of bacteria in the mouth.
For kids under 4, any type of gum is a choking hazard. But babies and toddlers can still reap the benefits of Xylitol: If Mom chews it during her pregnancy and up to two years postpartum, her child's less likely to develop tooth decay down the road (the bacteria that cause it are often passed from mother to baby through kissing or sharing food).
Q: My toddler grinds his teeth. Should I be concerned?
Tooth grinding (bruxism) happens occasionally in young kids. As your child's mouth grows and changes, he may grind his teeth in order to comfortably align them with his jaw. While it can damage the enamel on baby teeth, they usually fall out before it becomes a problem. And experts say it's uncommon for grinding to do serious harm to permanent teeth because the habit usually goes away on its own by age 6. If you're still worried, or your child hasn't outgrown it by then, talk to your dentist. She may suggest a mouth guard to wear at night.
Q: Do I really need to wipe my baby's gums with gauze before his teeth come in?
It's a good idea. It will help your baby get used to the feeling of brushing, and sometimes there's a small opening in the gum before the tooth erupts – a perfect hiding place for bacteria, which the gauze will wipe away. It is recommended that you start wiping your baby's gums after each feeding at around 6 months (it takes just a few seconds). It may even have the added benefit of making teething more comfortable for your baby, since as you're cleaning you're also massaging the gums.