Preventing tooth decay in your baby or toddler might take quite a bit of effort in the early days, but it will save you (and them) a lot of unnecessary problems later on.
You can start getting your baby used to having their teeth brushed even before their first tooth appears. There are soft brushes specifically designed for babies, and some parents opt for a simple finger brush. The idea age is just to massage the gums, which will help keep them healthy and also ease teething discomfort. Once the first tooth arrives, start a regular, twice daily routine.
Up until the age of two, don’t use toothpaste. Between two and seven, use a pea-sized amount. Although there are low-dose fluoride pastes available for children (500ppm), current advice from paedodontists is to use the higher-dose children’s pastes (over 1,000ppm) in small quantities and under supervision. This is because the low-dose pastes do not contain the recommended levels of fluoride for protection against cavities.
For parents who find themselves having to wrestle their baby/toddler into submission at brushing time, Dr Helen Walsh of the Portobello Dental Clinic suggests an approach that worked with her two children.
“Sit down with your child on your lap. Lay their head back against your upper arm so they are semi-supine – a bit like you were giving them a bottle. In the early days, just ‘tickle’ the teeth, before moving on to proper brushing.”
The Dental Health Foundation says it takes about three minutes to brush teeth properly, and that children should spit, not rinse.
Although it is important to brush twice a day, the evening brush is the one to be most vigilant with. This is because there is less saliva flow at night, and bacteria have a greater chance of multiplying (especially if there are food particles in the mouth). “Never let the child take over fully at that brush,” says Walsh.
Walsh says parents are the best judges of when their child is ready for their first visit to the dentist, although all children should have been by age three. “Choose your language about the dentist carefully. If your child asks what dentists do, you can just say they count teeth. Avoid saying things like ‘it won’t hurt’.”
Food and drink
However good your brushing regime, you will be fighting a tough battle if your children are eating or drinking a lot of cariogenic (decay-promoting) substances.
Walsh says babies and toddlers should not be given milk or juice in a bottle to have in bed. “Milk – even breastmilk – is quite high in sugar,” she says. However, she adds that common sense must prevail, and parents shouldn’t be overly concerned. “If milk is the only thing they’re having with sugar in it, I’d be very surprised if they got decay.”
More important is what else your children take in, and when. For example, if you’re going to give your child juice it’s best to do so with a meal. “When eating, there’s more saliva and therefore greater washing action,” says Walsh. Similarly, treats are best given straight after a meal so the saliva can wash away sugar and neutralise acid.
The best drink is of course plain old-fashioned water. “Always have a water bottle handy, and you can even try them with a cooled herbal tea for a bit of flavour,” she says.
Although many fruits are high in sugar, Walsh says parents shouldn’t worry. “Teeth are designed to take a certain amount of sugar; I’d be really surprised if a child developed a cavity due to fruit. The problem is when they have their fruit, and then the jellies and marshmallows. It’s a cumulative effect.”
She says not to let your child graze constantly on fruit during the day. “Try to give it together, then give their teeth a break for a few hours. If they’re having a grape here and a grape there, they are at a higher risk.”
She also has a word of warning about dried fruits. “They are full of sugar, but more than that, they have a consistency that causes them to get stuck in teeth grooves. Normal fruits get washed off.” For the same reason, says Walsh, if given a choice between chocolate buttons or jellies, the former are less likely to cause problems.