Children and Tooth Decay

Since the early 1970s, the number of children with cavities has declined dramatically. Before then, more than half of 3-year-olds had tooth decay, while today only 20 percent have at least one cavity. But dental experts say they would like that number to be lower still.

Improved awareness about oral health, the widespread use of fluoride, more consistent visits to a dentist and increased expectations among better educated parents has led to a decrease in tooth decay among the very young.

Still, the majority of people believe that tooth decay doesn't begin until the teen years and that it's primarily a problem of older adults who must wear dentures. The truth is that most tooth decay occurs in childhood -- but it doesn't have to. Teeth were made to last a lifetime, and dental experts say that if you help your kids take good care of their teeth, they should last just that long.

Even a newborn can benefit from good oral hygiene. Clean your baby's mouth in the first few days after birth after every feeding. Gently wipe the baby's gums with a soft, damp cloth or gauze to remove plaque, which begins to build up right away. Plaque, the white, sticky substance that forms on and around teeth, is the culprit in gum disease. It forms again within 24 hours after being removed, and it harbors a large amount of bacteria.

Your baby should have his or her first trip to the dentist within six months of the first tooth's appearance and no later than age 1. The dentist will show you how to care for your baby's teeth. Older children should see the dentist for a checkup twice a year, and brush and floss daily.

Besides regular checkups and good daily oral hygiene, diet plays an important role in the health of your child's teeth. Much of tooth decay results from sugar-laden foods and drinks that stick to teeth. Limit your child's consumption of candy and soda, as well as juice. Instead of juice, offer your child more plain water or milk.

What to Do

The best way to prevent tooth decay is to begin at birth with good oral hygiene. Clean your child's gums, and progress to toothpaste and a brush when your child has six to 10 teeth (usually between 24 and 36 months of age). Most children will be able to brush on their own by the time they are 6 or 7, when they have the necessary motor skills. After your child learns how to spit out the toothpaste instead of swallow you should begin using a fluoride containing toothpaste.  Begin flossing when you notice two teeth are touching. Your child should have a dental checkup twice a year. Call your dental provider if your child has any pain in the mouth, white patches in the mouth or gum inflammation.

Self-care Steps for Kids and Tooth Decay

  • Restrict sweets and limit how often the child gets sweets. Frequency of exposure is more important than the total amount of sweets.
  • Use fluoride toothpaste once your child is 24 to 36 months of age and has developed the ability to spit.
  • Brush or help your child brush two or three times daily.
  • Use floss or an interdental cleaning device on your child's teeth once a day when you notice two teeth touching.
  • It takes awhile for kids to learn to do their own flossing, but by ages 10 to 12, many kids can floss with parents watching.
  • Talk with your child about the importance of brushing and flossing and set an example by brushing and flossing your own teeth.

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