One of the more frequent questions I get asked in my practice is: “At what age should I begin brushing my child’s teeth”? My answer is always the same: “As early as possible.”
The sooner you introduce your child to regular brushing and oral care habits, the easier the road ahead will be. And yes, this means that you should be implementing an oral care regime from the age of three months. Too often I see toddlers (two to three years) that would rather go without chocolate for a week, than be subjected to a tooth-brushing session. Children rely on their parents to teach them how to brush their teeth and how often brushing is needed. But the stork does not deliver an instruction manual with each bundle of joy labelled The Art of Good Brushing. So, what are doting parents to do with little information on the subject?
“Minor dietary changes can have a profoundly positive impact on the health of your child’s teeth in the short and long term.”
Many new parents are unaware of the brushing basics that are essential to a healthy mouth for their child. The bare truth is: brushing (and flossing) your child’s teeth are daily essentials that balance the bacterial levels in the mouth, remove excess carbohydrates and keep gums healthy and free of gum disease. In order to be successful at this tricky aspect of parenting, a hands-on approach to teaching and reinforcing good daily habits is needed.
Flossing? Are you serious?
There are many things in the world that are uncomfortable yet unavoidable – flossing is one of them. When you brush only, you are removing less than half of the plaque from the tooth surface where cavities regularly occur. Children in particular are most susceptible to interproximal decay (cavities in between the teeth). In order to prevent these cavities, flossing is needed each evening. Flossing should begin from the age of 4. If you find that your child’s gums are bleeding excessively when you floss them, I recommend you pay a visit to the dentist to check for any cavities between the molar teeth. A meticulous paediatric dentist will take the time to also show easy flossing techniques when you floss your child’s teeth at home. Remember, it’s the flossing between the molar teeth that is the most important, so don’t just floss the front teeth and call it a day.
Gums, neglect me not
Gum disease is not a ‘disease’ that you catch. Gum disease (a.k.a. gingivitis) is caused by long-term irritation of the gums due to an increase in bacterial build up and plaque, resulting in chronic inflammation. This presents as puffy, red and swollen gums that bleed to the touch. Studies have shown a significant link between the bacteria associated with gum disease and other diseases in the body.
Each time a child with gingivitis chews and swallows, all that bacteria that has built up around the gums are also being swallowed. This disrupts the delicate balance of good bacteria found in the gut (called the gut microbiome), which has a potential cascade of negative side effects within the body and the immune system. Gingivitis should be prevented by focusing on brushing around the gums with a soft toothbrush. Spend time brushing in circles and ensure your child has no bleeding from their gums. If the gums do bleed, it is a sure sign they need a visit to the dentist or oral hygienist.
What to eat?
Many thousands of years ago, dental decay did not exist. The reason for this was the healthy, balanced diet of prehistoric man. Early man ate a diet high in raw fruits and vegetables and a relatively low protein content. Food was also very fibrous, with no refined carbohydrates and a very low sugar content. Our ancestors also drank only water.
Minor dietary changes can have a profoundly positive impact on the health of your child’s teeth in the short and long term, if adhered to.
A list of foods to generally avoid:
- Fruit juices and concentrates are extremely acidic and high in sugar. Children should drink only water.
- Refined carbohydrates like potato crisps can sometimes be even more destructive for teeth when consumed regularly.
- Boiled and sticky sweets such as suckers and fizzy sweets should be banned from party packs. Try to teach your children to make good decisions and choose better quality sweets. Chocolate and marshmallows are a better alternative.
- Choose a xylitol-based alternative for treats during the week. Many health stores and larger department store pharmacies sell brands of treats that contain xylitol as opposed to regular cane sugar. Xylitol does not cause dental decay.
Prevention is better than cure
Kids will be kids and sugar intake is unavoidable over your child’s lifetime. The key to success if to mitigate the damage by teaching your children good brushing and flossing habits and guiding them to make good food choices. Above all else, develop a trusting, collaborative relationship with your paediatric dentist. If you and your child trust your dentist and visit regularly, the road ahead will be smooth and cavity-free.