We are very fortunate that baby teeth are relatively temporary and are progressively replaced with a set of adult teeth somewhere between ages 5 and 12. This is the Creator’s way of giving us another chance at a perfect set of teeth despite possible accidents and caries during childhood. This short article will review simple but important things we can do to help our children maintain good dental health during childhood and set the stage for a lifetime of attractive, healthy, comfortable smiles.
Parents sometimes worry when the first tooth or teeth seem slow to arrive. Pediatric dentists are seldom concerned about eruption schedules, since unless the teeth develop abnormally, it isn’t important, and there is little that can be done to change this anyway. Usually when a child is 2 to 3 years old, between a few and all 20 baby teeth are in place. The elevated temperature, fussiness, and drooling that may attend tooth eruption is seldom severe enough to require treatment, although it undeniably concerns parents.
More important is the critical work of keeping those cute little teeth cavity-free. Any calorie-containing food or drink can be the substrate in which bacteria thrive and cause cavities, so cleaning with a cloth over a finger for a sleepy baby, or a toothbrush for an older child, is very important each time a child goes to sleep at night and at least once during the day.
Children who habitually sleep with food, even breast milk, on their teeth are much more likely to have extensive cavities, which may result in pain, infection, and loss of teeth. Especially important are cleaning and good care of permanent first molars (the first back adult teeth), which erupt when a child is about 6.
Most children cannot be left with the responsibility of brushing their own teeth. Sometimes parents complain that children do not let them brush their teeth. It is the parents’ inescapable responsibility to establish a strategy that makes adequate oral hygiene a consistent, expected, nonnegotiable daily experience. Sometimes it just needs to be associated with a story, and a happy “together” time or a nonfood treat.
As babies grow, feedings need to be less often, and as soon as possible, there should be a two-hour period, morning and afternoon, during which only water is placed in the mouth. Sippy cups of juice are popular with children, but very bad for teeth. Constant use of sippy cups and prolonged use of a nursing bottle, pacifiers, thumb sucking, and oral self-soothing with blankets, etc., can cause the teeth to move into unnatural (albeit usually correctable) positions that can later complicate the arrangement of permanent teeth. The psychological benefits of these devices must be weighed against the damage they can do to dentition.
A dental professional, especially a pediatric dentist, can help with all these issues. A “dental-friendly home,” in which a child becomes familiar with good oral hygiene (before treatment is needed), is most useful to long-term oral well-being.