Even though some kids are at much higher risk of developing cavities, all children can get them. So it's important for everyone to follow this road map for dental health.
- Tame a sweet tooth. Limiting sugar -- which bacteria need in order to survive -- is the number-one way to prevent cavities. It's actually the frequency, not the total quantity of sugar consumption, that matters most, says Dr. Edelstein. (Eating a chocolate bar all at once is less harmful to the teeth than eating one bite every hour.) That's because repeatedly exposing the teeth to sugar prevents saliva, the body's natural tooth cleanser, from doing its job. Candy isn't the only offender: Starchy carbohydrates like crackers and cereal and sticky foods such as raisins can also promote decay.
- Think about drinks. Fruit juice (even diluted), as well as breast milk and formula, bathe the teeth in sugar, says Ronald Kosinski, D.M.D., chief of pediatric dentistry at Schneider Children?s Hospital, in New Hyde Park, New York. In fact, dentists used to call early dental caries "baby-bottle tooth decay" because it often occurs in children who drink milk or juice during the night -- allowing sugar to sit on the teeth for ten or 12 hours. The AAPD advises weaning your child from the bottle by 14 months to prevent decay -- but you shouldn't let your toddler walk around all day with a Sippy cup either (unless it's filled with water).
- Focus on fluoride. If your community's water is not fluoridated (check with your dentist or municipal-water-supply board) or your kids only drink unfluoridated bottled water, talk to your pediatrician about fluoride supplements. Too much fluoride, however, can lead to fluorosis, which causes white spots on the teeth. That's why kids under 2 or 3 shouldn't use fluoride toothpaste -- they'll swallow it instead of spitting it out.
- Treat teeth earlier. Dentists can now apply a safe and protective fluoride varnish to young children's teeth. A recent study found that 1-year-olds who got this treatment twice a year were four times less likely to get cavities in their baby teeth. Also ask your dentist about sealants, plastic coatings that prevent decay. Some insurance plans will cover these two treatments.
- Take care of your own smile. If you have a history of dental problems, avoid sharing utensils or toothbrushes with your baby or toddler -- or even letting him stick his fingers in your mouth. However, it's possible to reduce levels of mutans in your mouth. Your dentist can prescribe an antibacterial mouthwash that can reduce transmission to young children. Research has also found that chewing sugarless gum containing the sweetener Xylitol (such as Trident, Wrigley?s Orbit, or Carefree Koolerz) four times a day significantly lowers a mother's bacteria levels. Good nutrition during pregnancy may also strengthen a baby's tooth enamel. Of course, you should brush and floss well, and get any problems treated promptly. This will also set a good example for your child and show him that protecting his smile is essential.