The slogan for this year’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, which is every February, is “A healthy smile? It’s easy to find! Remember to brush and floss each day.”
The idea behind the American Dental Association-sponsored campaign is to raise awareness of the importance of good oral health. ADA officials say they want children to develop good habits at an early age and have regular dental visits so they get a head start on a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums.
The slogan for the pre-teen and teen portion of the campaign is, “Healthy smiles look good up close.” It is designed to encourage older children to brush and floss each day, limit snacks, eat nutritious meals and see a dentist regularly.
Dental decay is one of the most common chronic infectious diseases among U.S. children and is the No. 1 cause of school absenteeism in the United States. An infected or decayed tooth is preventable even when risk factors that contribute to the conditions are present. Four things are necessary for decay and cavities to form:
• a tooth
• sugars or other carbohydrates
When teeth come in frequent contact with soft drinks and other sugary substances, the risk of decay increases. Low-income children have twice as much untreated decay as children in families with higher incomes. Poor nutritional and dental-care habits, infrequent visits to a dentist and lack of exposure to fluorides contribute greatly to their incidence of decay.
This preventable health problem begins early with 28 percent of children between the ages of 2-5 years already having decay in their baby, or primary, teeth. By age 8, approximately 52 percent of children have experienced decay; and by age 17, dental decay affects 78 percent of children.
Even children and adults who are at low risk for developing dental decay can improve their risk and stay cavity-free through frequent exposure to small amounts of fluoride. This is best accomplished through drinking fluoridated water and using fluoride toothpaste twice daily. Children and adults at high risk of dental decay may benefit from using additional fluoride products, including dietary supplements. This is especially true for children who do not have adequate levels of fluoride in their drinking water. Mouth rinses and professionally applied gels and varnishes are other options that can prevent decay.
Parents need to watch what their kids eat and make them brush regularly, but many appear to be unaware that letting children sip on sugary drinks for hours or putting them to bed with a bottle of milk can be just as harmful. Tooth decay and the resulting problems of pain, dental dysfunction, being underweight and the resulting poor appearance from bad teeth can greatly reduce a child’s capacity to succeed in their educational and social environments.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s recommendations, a child’s first visit to the dentist should be when his or her first tooth comes in, usually between 5 and 12 months of age. They used to recommend that a child see a dentist at 3 years of age but because so many children have cavities by the time they start kindergarten, the AAP now suggests that high-risk children see a dentist six months after their first tooth comes in or before they are 12 months old.
If your child doesn’t have any high risk factors for developing cavities, such as sleeping with a cup or bottle or walking around all day with a cup of juice, and if his or her teeth seem to be developing normally, then you can probably wait until your child is older. However, you should ask your pediatrician to check your child’s teeth at each well-child visit and get the doctor’s recommendation. But regardless of when your child first sees a dentist, don’t discount the importance of their baby teeth or believe they aren’t a big deal because they will be replaced by permanent teeth. Primary teeth serve a number of critical functions, such as:
• Maintaining good nutrition by permitting your child to chew properly
• Improving speech development
• Helping permanent teeth by saving space for them
• Providing a healthy smile that can help children feel good about the way they look to others
To prevent tooth decay, parents need to:
• Maintain a healthy diet for the family
• Make sure water is readily available and encourage the use of fluoridated water. If your family buys bottled water, check the label for the fluoride content.
• Limit the number of between-meal snacks and choose nutritious foods that are low in sugar when snacks are provided
• See that everyone brushes their teeth thoroughly twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste that has the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance
• Assist younger children and oversee older ones as they floss or use another kind of interdental cleaner daily to remove plaque (a thin film of bacteria) from under the gums and between teeth
• Schedule regular dental visits for checkups and cleanings
• Keep a food diary for a week. Record every item the family eats and drinks, including hard candies or chewing gum that contains sugar. Repeat this process when family routines and eating habits change.