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Health blog

Child Dental Health

Tooth decay affects more children in the United States than any other chronic infectious disease. Untreated tooth decay causes pain and infections that can lead to poor nutrition and early tooth loss. The good news is that these problems are largely preventable with proper dental care, including early brushing, fluoride, sealants, and regular visits to a dentist familiar with caring for children’s teeth. Good dental care begins in infancy.

Brushing Teeth

Start oral care early. Experts recommend wiping an infant’s gums with a soft damp cloth after feeding to help prevent the buildup of bacteria. A cloth also may be used on the gums and teeth when the child has only one or two teeth. Switch to a baby toothbrush when the child has several teeth. Move on to larger, age-appropriate toothbrushes as your child gets older.

You can begin using a ‘smear’ of fluoride toothpaste on the toothbrush when the child is two years old. Increase the amount to a pea-sized lump between ages two and five. Supervise or perform brushing. Children usually don’t have the skill to brush their teeth adequately until they are around four or five years old. Until that time, parents should brush the child’s teeth twice a day for two minutes.

Visiting the Dentist

“First visit by first birthday.” The American Dental Association recommends that parents take their child to a dentist no later than the first birthday. This gives the dentist a chance to look for early dental problems. You and your child's dentist should review important information about diet, bottles, tooth brushing and fluoride use. Visiting the dentist at a young age will help your child become comfortable with being examined by a dentist, and establishes the child’s dental home.

Pediatric dentists are the pediatricians of dentistry. A pediatric dentist has two to three years specialty training following dental school and limits practice to treating children only. Pediatric dentists are the primary and specialty oral care providers for infants and children through adolescence, including those with special health needs. However, many family dentists are also well equipped to see children. Early examination and preventive care will protect your child’s smile now and in the future.

Protecting Teeth

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls fluoridation of community drinking water one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th Century. Fluoride has been added to drinking water for more than sixty-five years because it helps to prevent, control and even reverse tooth decay. Studies show fluoridated water reduces tooth decay by 25% over a person’s lifetime. While fluoride is safe, excess amounts at too young an age may cause white spots on permanent teeth. If your child is under eight, follow your dentist’s recommendation regarding use of fluoride toothpaste or supplements.

Dental sealants are thin plastic coatings most often applied to the chewing surfaces of children’s molars. The material seals the natural grooves and pits in the molars where food particles and bacteria can collect. Sealants are applied as soon as molars erupt; first molars come in at around six years old and second molars at about twelve years old. The treatments, which are painless and tasteless, help to protect the teeth from decay for five to ten years.

Dental Injuries and Accidents

If a young child loses a baby tooth it can’t be put back in, nor does it need to be. If the child’s mouth is bleeding, apply pressure to the area with cold gauze. Use ice to reduce swelling and give the pain medication approved by your child’s doctor (usually acetaminophen or ibuprofen).

If a permanent tooth is chipped or broken, collect the pieces and use ice to reduce pain and swelling as needed. Visit your dentist with the pieces of tooth; they can sometimes be used to repair or reconstruct the permanent tooth.

The complete loss of a permanent tooth is considered an emergency. If a permanent tooth comes out, find it, rinse it, and try to insert it back into the socket. The child should hold the tooth in place while seeking immediate care in the dentist’s office or emergency room. If the tooth cannot be put into the socket, place it in a small container of milk – not water – and seek immediate dental care. It’s sometimes possible for the tooth to be re-implanted.

Be sure children wear mouth guards and protective gear for contact sports such as baseball and football. Children should wear helmets for activities such as biking and skating to help prevent or minimize dental trauma.


Sources: CDC “Children’s Oral Health,” at: www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/topics/child.htm, and National Institute of Health Medline Plus, “Child Dental Health,” at: www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/childdentalhealth.html.


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