Aside from the fact that we have “baby” and “permanent” teeth, kids also face different dental challenges than adults. The branch of dentistry that deals with children’s and infants’ teeth and mouth conditions is called pediatric dentistry. While all dentists are qualified to work with children, many dentists specialize in this branch of dentistry.
Overview: Children’s Oral Health
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), kids had far fewer cavities in 2015-2016 than kids had four years earlier. The researchers report a decline in total caries prevalence from 2011 to 2016, from 50.0% to 43.1%. In addition, untreated caries prevalence is on a downward trend. The CDC found that, for untreated caries, although the prevalence increased from 16.1% in 2011–2012 to 18.0% in 2013–2014, it then decreased to 13.0% in 2015–2016. Nevertheless, according to the CDC, cavities remain the number one chronic disease among 6-19 year-olds.
Your Child’s First Dentist Visit
When is the right time to take children for their first dentist visit? Many parents still believe children should wait until age four or older to have their first dentist visit. However, children should really see the dentist much earlier. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dental Association say children should start dental visits around age one when baby teeth emerge.
Why start so young?
A first dental visit by around age one accomplishes a number of important goals, according to researchers. For one, it helps to educate parents about some key oral health issues, such as the following:
- The correct way to brush teeth
- The need to limit sugary drinks and snacks
- Not putting kids to bed with a bottle
An earlier first dental visit also helps kids get used to dentists. It helps them learn to manage their dental anxiety. And it lays the groundwork for a lifelong commitment to oral health.
Our teeth are meant to last our entire lives. Pediatric dental care is about caring for teeth properly in the first part of our lives. This is essential if we’re to enjoy them later on. But that doesn’t mean that our children’s dental health needs are the same from childhood through the teenage years. Pediatric dental care can guide us along the way from baby teeth to fully mature adult teeth.
Young mouths need to be cared for, even if baby teeth haven’t come in yet. Oral bacteria can grow with or without teeth (and can also spread through saliva from mother to child), so starting a regimen of good oral hygiene habits early on is essential.
Start Building Good Dental Care Habits
Infant dental care is the beginning of a thorough prevention program. Many parents may wonder why they should consider pediatric dentistry for their toothless baby. After all, teething doesn’t begin until 6 to 12 months of age. But attention to infant dental care is paramount – even before they arrive – and should begin as soon as possible.
A healthy smile is an important part of your child’s development of self-esteem. Caring for that smile as soon as it arrives is your best bet to keep seeing it every day. So you can get a head start on preparing for the arrival of those baby teeth, here are some pointers:
- From birth, clean your baby’s gums with a soft infant toothbrush or cloth and water
- Once baby teeth emerge, use fluoridated toothpaste and an age-appropriate brush twice a day
- Don’t let your baby fall asleep with a bottle containing anything but water
- Avoid serving your child juice in a bottle – use a sippy cup, if necessary
- Thumb-sucking after the age of three can pose bite problems and should be addressed with your dentist
Wiping your baby’s gums after feedings with a clean, damp cloth will help remove food particles and the bacteria they produce. Once baby teeth begin to erupt, brushing gently with a child’s sized toothbrush and water will do the same. Usually tooth eruption begins around the six-month mark and is your reminder to schedule an appointment with your child’s dentist.
Pediatric dentistry guidelines encourage establishing a “dental home” for your child by their first birthday, a place where he or she (and you) can feel comfortable, ask questions, and receive guidance on what’s best for those new baby teeth.
By the time your child can be trusted to spit (rather than swallow) toothpaste, start using a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste for brushing. You should assist your child with this practice until the age of 6.
You may be asking, “Why so much care for baby teeth, when they’re just going to fall out eventually?” Here’s why: baby teeth allow your growing child to chew properly, are essential to speech development, and save space in a growing jaw for the upcoming permanent teeth.
Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
Another very important issue for baby teeth is Early Childhood Caries (ECC), or Baby Bottle Tooth Decay.
Many parents feed their toddlers sugary drinks in bottles or sippy cups. These bacteria-producing liquids tend to pool around the front baby teeth when administered this way, creating concentrated areas for potential decay. Avoid giving your child juices or sweetened water in a bottle or sippy cup, and don’t let your child fall asleep with these in hand (or mouth!).
Once solid foods are introduced to your toddler, maintaining good eating habits will go a long way toward ensuring those baby teeth are replaced with healthy adult teeth. Besides providing excellent nutritional value, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can also leave less fuel for plaque to grow with. Adequate exposure to fluoride is a must for young children. If your water supply lacks proper levels of fluoride, pediatric dental care techniques can assist your child with fluoride washes and applications to strengthen baby teeth enamel.
Dental Hygiene as Children Grow Older
As your child grows, their dental hygiene habits can slack off. School, sports, activities, friends, and junk food can all conspire to get in the way of good oral hygiene habits. Reminding your adolescent or teen that their baby teeth are gone and their adult teeth are the last set to come in is important. Also, hormonal changes can make teens susceptible to gingivitis and other periodontal diseases due to extra gum sensitivity. Make it easy for your teen to brush, floss and eat well. Plenty of healthy snacks around the house are a good way to avoid the temptation of junk food.
Many teens require orthodontics, which require even greater vigilance in the oral hygiene department. Follow your orthodontist’s instructions on the proper way to keep braces and retainers clean. It really all comes down to the oral hygiene habits you began practicing with your young child. If they can make brushing at least twice daily, flossing, and eating smart a priority, their teeth will likely last well past their own children’s formative years.
Exams and Cleanings
Fortunately, the prevalence of untreated dental caries (cavities) among U.S. kids is trending downward. Nevertheless, cavities are still the top chronic disease among 6-19 year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Regular dental exams and cleanings can help your kids stay healthy so they can do their best in school. Kids should all have a dental exam and teeth cleaning every six months. Doing so helps to cut down on the risk of cavities, gingivitis, and periodontitis.
Regular exams can also help detect threats to overall health, such as oral cancer. During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist does a careful check of kids’ teeth and gums to find signs of tooth decay, gum disease, or any other oral health problems. A regular exam allows the dentist to be proactive and repair weaknesses before they become bigger problems.
Vacation Time and Kids’ Oral Care
School breaks are a great time to schedule dental exams and cleanings. It can be a challenge to get kids to the dentist for dental exams and cleanings while classes are in session. Also, sadly, school breaks sometimes turn into oral health breaks, as well. It’s easy for oral care routines to slip and take a back seat when other routines are on hold. Scheduling kids’ dental exams and cleanings during these times can help keep oral health habits on track.
In addition, if travel or camp is part of your child’s school break, a dental exam and cleaning can help ensure their teeth are healthy and ready to go. Being proactive about kids’ oral health can help ensure they have a happy and enjoyable vacation.
The American Dental Association recommends two dental exams and cleanings each year. However, it can be a challenge to get kids to the dentist during the school year. That’s understandable. Work schedules, activities and other commitments mount up when schools are in session.
For school aged kids, scheduling dentist visits during summer and winter vacations can help keep their oral health on track. If you plan ahead, that is. Chances are other parents are thinking along these lines as well.