Did you know that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of childhood? And that 40% of children have tooth decay by kindergarten? This is a big deal, not only because of the pain and infection it can cause, but also because children with tooth decay are more likely to miss school and have poorer grades — and because tooth decay is linked to a higher risk of many health problems later in life, including heart disease and premature birth.
Tooth decay is simple to prevent, yet sadly, many families don’t take the steps that are needed.
1. Don’t skip the fluoride. Fluoride is very helpful when it comes to preventing tooth decay. Too much fluoride isn’t good, as it can lead to fluorosis — but avoiding fluoride entirely is a big mistake. There is no need for “training” toothpaste. As soon as your child has teeth, you should use fluoride toothpaste. The trick is to only use a tiny bit. Before age 3, just a barely visible smear is plenty. Starting at 3, use a pea-sized amount.
2. Don’t shirk the brushing. It can be busy in the morning when you are trying to get everyone out of the house — and it’s understandable to be so exhausted in the evening that just getting kids into bed becomes the goal. But regular brushing is key to preventing cavities. Ideally, brushing should happen after every meal, but twice a day is fine. Once a day is not fine.
3. Don’t skip supervising the brushing. Independence is great in kids, but not when it comes to brushing teeth. To be really effective, each tooth needs to be brushed. Left to their own devices, most kids don’t brush all of their teeth — some of them barely brush any. So for kids younger than 6, rather than just handing them the toothbrush and then checking your phone, or sending them to the bathroom to brush on their own, parents need to be involved. Do it yourself until you are sure they are doing what they need to do.
4. Don’t give kids sticky sweets. Sugar is bad for teeth, especially when it’s literally stuck to teeth. So stuff like toffee, caramel, gummy bears, and even dried fruit are not the best choices when it comes to snacks. Not that kids can never have them, but they should be limited, and ideally kids should brush soon after eating them.
5. Don’t let kids carry around sippy cups or bottles of juice or milk. When kids are frequently sipping juice or milk, it ends up meaning that teeth are consistently bathed in sugar. Even 100% juice and unsweetened milk have sugar — the natural sugars of milk and juice, not sucrose — which can do the same damage to teeth. If kids are going to carry around a beverage, it should be water.
6. Don’t avoid going to the dentist early or often enough. The American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children see a dentist, and establish a dental “home,” by the age of a year. Once they get started, they should go every 6 months for a checkup, cleaning, and preventive care like sealants. Just like going to the pediatrician for regular checkups, going to the dentist for regular checkups is the best way to catch problems early and prevent them before they start.