Most children develop their first set of primary teeth (“baby teeth”) around 6 months of age and continue growing teeth until they are around 3 years old. While these teeth are not permanent, they are an important part of oral development, acting as placeholders to keep permanent teeth inside the gums until they are ready to erupt at the appropriate age.

February is Children’s Dental Health month, and developing good oral health habits and getting proper dental care, even at a young age, can significantly improve a child’s overall health. As parents, it’s important to help children get appropriate dental care at an early age, and develop good lifelong oral health habits.

The Effects of Poor Oral Health on Children

A healthy mouth allows children to speak, smile, chew, taste, and swallow properly, while and unhealthy mouth can lead to gum disease, pain, difficulty concentrating, school absence, early tooth loss, and eventually even chronic health problems. It is estimated that as many as 17 million children suffer from untreated tooth decay, making it the single most common chronic childhood disease in the U.S. According to the CDC, tooth decay affects more than 25% of U.S. children ages 2-5, and 50% of children ages 12-15, costing billions of dollars every year. Fortunately all of these things are preventable with some simple strategies for good oral health care that parents can do, and teach children as well.

Visit the Dentist Early and Often

Your child’s first dental visit should occur when s/he first develops teeth, and certainly no later than his/her first birthday. Even though children don’t have all their teeth by this time, seeing a pediatric dentist early can help parents learn proper oral care strategies for each critical stage of a child’s development. Continue seeing the dentist for check-ups every 6 months, or more often based on the advice of your dentist. You can also bring your child to The Dental Clinic at Roseman University for our annual Give Kids a Smile® event, where we offer free dental exams, cleaning, and x-rays, plus a $50 voucher to each child to attends, which can be used at the Dental Clinic for future treatment.

Brush and Floss Daily

Parents should clean children’s teeth starting when the first teeth appear through the gums. In the early stages of tooth development, you can use a clean washcloth with water or moist piece of gauze to wipe down the gums and teeth twice a day to prevent plaque. As more teeth develop, use a child-size toothbrush with soft bristles, and about half of a pea-sized amount of toothpaste specially formulated for children at least twice a day. Try to floss once a day as well. When children are old enough to begin brushing teeth on their own, supervise the process to ensure that children clean all their teeth adequately, and that they do not swallow toothpaste (especially if it contains fluoride).

Get Sealants

Sealants are a small plastic coating applied to a child’s teeth to prevent tooth decay and cavities by keeping food and germs out of the grooves of teeth. They are most often applied to molars (which develop between the ages of 6-12), and can be applied quickly during a regular check-up or cleaning. They usually last between five and 10 years, and can be reapplied if they break or fall out.

Use Fluoride

Fluoride is a mineral that helps strengthen tooth enamel by making it more resistant to attacks from plaque bacteria and sugar in the mouth, which cause decay. Fluoride can occur naturally in water and foods, but if there is not enough fluoride in your area, you may need to supplement your child’s intake with toothpaste, drops, or tablets, based on the advice of your dentist. However, ingesting too much fluoride can be toxic for children, so be sure to follow the advice of your dentist on how much fluoride is enough, and supervise children whenever they are brushing with fluoride toothpaste to ensure they spit it out.

Eat Healthy Meals

Nutritious foods, such as vegetables, fruits, protein, and whole grains can contribute to a healthy mouth, while unhealthy foods, especially those high in sugar, can lead to tooth decay and other chronic health conditions. Limiting the amount of sugar children eat, such as candy and sugary drinks, can also help avoid early tooth decay.