The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) is an organization representing the specialty of pediatric dentistry. The group advocates policies, guidelines, and programs that promote optimal oral health care for children beginning in infancy. For National Children’s Dental Health Month, the organization reminds parents that dental health starts early, even before children reach one year of age.
More than 40 percent of children have tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten. And studies show that early tooth decay often leads to more problems with permanent adult teeth. “If a child experiences tooth decay at an early age, it is a very difficult process to stop,” says Paul Casamassimo DDS MS, the chief of Dentistry at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Dr. Casamassimo supports the revised guidelines of the AAPD that recommend that children have their initial dental visit between 6 and 12 months of age. “Taking a proactive approach to infant oral care can make a difference that will last a lifetime,” he says.
The first dental visit of a child’s life establishes the relationship between the family and dental team. At this appointment, parents can expect to meet with both the dental hygienist and the dentist. They will examine the oral structure of the toddler’s mouth while also introducing him or her to the feeling of a toothbrush. Afterward, parents will learn about dental and oral development, fluoride adequacy, teething, non-nutritive habits, injury prevention, dietary information and oral hygiene instructions.
While some parents may delay oral health appointments until a child is older, the AAPD emphasizes that dental care is “medically necessary to prevent and eliminate orofacial disease, infection and pain.” A child’s teeth are at risk for decay as soon as they first appear. Undiagnosed and untreated oral conditions may interfere with a child’s ability to eat, sleep or function well at home or at school. Dental caries and dental malocclusion may compromise a child’s self-esteem and social development.
One of the earliest causes of dental caries is the baby bottle. This typically causes decay in the upper front teeth first. Prolonged exposure to any sugary liquid, including fruit juice, can cause bacteria to multiply leading to decay. Dentists recommend that toddlers begin drinking from a cup no later than one year of age.
Other tips for parents include:
- Lower the risk of the baby’s infection with decay-causing bacteria. This can be done two ways – by improving the oral health of the mother/caregiver which reduces the number of bacteria in her mouth and by not sharing saliva with the baby through common use of feeding spoons or licking pacifiers and giving them to babies.
- After each feeding, wipe the baby’s gums with a clean, damp gauze pad or washcloth. This will remove plaque and bits of food that can harm erupting teeth. When your child’s teeth begin to erupt, brush them gently with a child’s size toothbrush and water. (Consult with your child’s dentist or physician if you are considering using fluoride toothpaste before age two.)
- When your child can be counted on to spit and not swallow toothpaste (usually not before age two), begin brushing the teeth with a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. The American Dental Association recommends fluoride toothpaste; ask your dentist about your child’s fluoride needs.
- Brush your child’s teeth until he or she is at least six years old.
- Place only formula, milk or breastmilk in bottles. Avoid filling the bottle with liquids such as sugar water, juice or soft drinks.
- Infants should finish their bedtime and naptime bottles before going to bed.
- If your child uses a pacifier, provide one that is clean — don’t dip it in sugar or honey, or put it in your mouth before giving it to the child.
- Encourage healthy eating habits that include a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Serve nutritious snacks and limit sweets to mealtimes.
Each February, the American Dental Association (ADA) sponsors National Children’s Dental Health Month to raise awareness about the importance of oral health. This year’s theme is “Rock Your Smile.”