You may wonder if the effort of making sure your little one actually brushes his or her teeth is worth it. If you sometimes feel your time may be better spent elsewhere, rest assured that your diligence is indeed paying off!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 40 percent of children have tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten. Introduce your child to healthy habits early to prevent tooth decay and to avoid the long-term effects of poor dental hygiene.

Use these tips to build good oral hygiene routines:

For babies and infants:
  • Even before your baby starts teething, run a clean, damp washcloth over the gums to clear away bacteria.
  • As your baby’s teeth come in, use a clean, damp washcloth or infant toothbrush with water and a tiny bit of fluoride toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) to gently brush his or her teeth and gums.
  • Clean your baby’s teeth after feeding – especially before bedtime.
  • Do not allow your child to sleep with a bottle in his or her mouth; this can accelerate development of cavities.
  • Once your baby’s teeth touch, you can gently floss between them.
  • Bring children to see a dentist by their first birthday, per recommendation from the American Dental Association (ADA).
  • Wean children from pacifier use and thumb-sucking before age two to prevent baby teeth from slanting or tilting.
For toddlers and kids:
  • Around age two, supervise your child’s brushing (and spitting) using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Avoid giving your child water to swish and spit to reduce the likelihood of swallowing toothpaste.
  • By age seven or eight, children can brush their teeth unsupervised.

Support these routines with preventive care measures:

  • Choose fluoride toothpastes with the ADA seal of acceptance. Fluoride is a natural mineral that helps protect teeth from decay. It is important to prevent children from swallowing fluoride products; over-ingestion of fluoride can cause white spots to appear on adult teeth.
  • Research the fluoride content of your tap water. If your water is fluoridated, give children tap water rather than bottled water so that they benefit from the safe level of fluoride in the community water source. If your water is not fluoridated, talk to your child’s dentist about alternatives such as fluoride mouthwashes, tablets, or varnishes.
  • Discuss dental sealants with your child’s dentist. Sealants prevent and slow the development of cavities by forming a protective film over the chewing surfaces of teeth so food particles do not collect and sit in natural surface variations.
  • Promote a healthy diet that is low in sugary foods and drinks, such as sodas, to preserve healthy tooth enamel.

Consequences of poor dental hygiene:

  • Pain from tooth decay can cause problems with speaking and chewing, possibly impacting the child’s ability to focus in school or develop speech.
  • In severe cases of decay, baby teeth may need to be extracted, causing difficulty speaking and chewing. Additionally, the visual signs of decay or gaps from early extraction can impact a child’s self-esteem.
  • If left untreated or not caught early enough, severe tooth decay can cause dental abscesses, jaw swelling, and even infection that can be spread via the bloodstream.
  • As baby teeth hold space for adult teeth, early extraction due to decay can also affect the positioning of adult teeth. This can lead to increased costs for orthodontic correction.
  • A report from the Surgeon General links oral infections to heart and lung diseases, stroke, oral and throat cancers, and more.

Fortunately, tooth decay can be addressed with fairly simple and effective measures; prevention is key. Combining good habits like brushing and flossing with preventive care tools like fluoride and sealants will help set your child up for a future with fewer cavities and more smiles.

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