An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Good Dental Care Starts Early

It’s only one tooth, many parents say.  However, those first baby teeth are more important than you may realize. 

“As parents, you often don’t realize the importance of early dentist visits. You think, ‘My kid doesn’t have any teeth, or he or she only has two teeth, so what is the dentist going to tell me,’” says Bhavini Acharya, B.D.S., M.P.H.,, a pediatric dentist with UTHealth Pediatric Dentistry. “But this is the time when we lay the groundwork for good habits and practices and a healthy mouth.” 

Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children, ranking above obesity, asthma and ear infections. The most common type is early childhood caries, which occurs in infants and toddlers. According to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research, 42 percent of children ages 2 to 11 are affected by tooth decay in their primary teeth and children living in low income and minority families are affected the most. “For those children, about 90 percent have cavities,” says Acharya, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry

Young children are susceptible to tooth decay for several reasons:

  • Poor brushing habits,
  • Not seeing a dentist,
  • Not using fluoride,
  • Consuming too many sugary drinks and candy,
  • Going to bed with a bottle or a sippy cup, and
  • Snacking too often. 

As parents, it’s important to be attentive to the issues that may be leading to poor oral health. 

“Parents should know that poor habits and hygiene by their children can lead to not just one cavity, but several teeth can be involved,” Acharya says. “In teenagers, about 50 percent have cavities in their permanent teeth, and most of them have had cavities in their primary teeth.” 

The bigger issue is that almost half of cavities in children ages 2 to 11 are not being treated. “Parents of my patients often come in with the chief complaint of cavities and pain. This means that they are waiting until it is too late to come in, because at that point we are past prevention and are trying to treat a more serious problem,” Acharya says. “In many cases, we have an infection with an abscess or facial swelling.” 

Here’s how to get your child started on good dental care: 

Begin cleaning teeth as soon as they come in.  For babies, use a small, soft toothbrush. A toddler may want to brush his or her own teeth, but after your child has a chance to practice, brush his or her teeth yourself. “It can take until age 8 or 9, or once your kid can write cursive and tie his shoe laces, before he can do a good job of brushing on his own,” Acharya says. “Do whatever it takes to get your kid comfortable with the routine, such as making brushing fun or singing silly songs for a couple of minutes. 

Take your little one for a first dental checkup at age 1. Kids should first visit the dentist within six months of eruption of the first tooth, Acharya says. That usually happens before their first birthday. Thereafter, a checkup every 6 months is recommended. However, if your child falls and damages a tooth, you will need to schedule a follow-up visit. 

Start flossing. Once your child is 3 years old, when your child’s teeth come together, start flossing daily. This practice will help remove the plaque between teeth, where decay starts. 

Stay away from high sugar intake. Sugars in candy and drinks stay on the teeth for hours, and bacteria turn them into acid that causes decay and erosion. How often your child consumes sugar is more important than how much, Acharya says. Your best bet is to give sweets with meals, and do not snack more than three times a day. 

Don’t put your child to bed with a bottle of milk or juice. Parents often think the bottle is what causes the decay, but it’s the juice or milk in the bottle, Acharya says. “Milk and juice contain their own sugars, and going to sleep with a bottle in the mouth causes the liquid to pool around the teeth, causing cavities,” she adds.

Use fluoride appropriately. There is a misconception that fluoride is bad for teeth, but that is really not true, Acharya says. It strengthens the tooth structure and prevents cavities. Children under age 2 may use a smear of fluoride toothpaste with supervision or just plain water (since they often swallow more than they spit out). Children over age 2 need only a small pea sized amount. Fluoride rinses are good for children over 6 years of age once they can rinse and spit. 

Good dental hygiene is an important way to protect your child’s oral health. It’s not just about your kid’s teeth, either — gum disease is also common in children. “More than 90 percent of children 7 to 10 years of age and teenagers have gingivitis," Acharya says. “That inflammation of the gums is related to new teeth coming in. At the same time, oral hygiene is not as good because it’s painful to brush.” 

The bottom line: The earlier you start good oral care, the better. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry found that only 1 in 4 parents took their children to see the dentist by age 1. 

“People don’t realize that other systems can be affected when your dental health is not up to par,” Acharya says. A decayed or missing baby tooth can also delay proper speech development. Pain from dental infection and tooth decay may hinder eating, sleeping or social activities. 

The good news is that establishing healthy practices early on will have a positive impact on your child’s overall development and quality of life. 

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