Even though your child will eventually lose all 20 of those baby teeth she's sprouting, it's important to take care of them. Not only do baby teeth hold the space that permanent teeth will move into, but your child will need to use those baby teeth for at least six years. Here are some frequently asked questions about childhood dental care.
Causes of Cavities
What Causes cavities and how can I prevent them? Cavities, also called dental caries, occur when the enamel (the outer layer of the tooth) breaks down from too much acidity. Excess bacteria produce the acid by feeding on carbohydrates which enter the mouth in the form of sugars and starches. The acid erodes a hole in the tooth, creating the cavity, which is typically corrected with a white or metal amalgam restoration -- called a filling. The end result (hopefully) of helping your child take good care of her teeth is that she'll avoid cavities. By enforcing good dental care early in your child's life and encouraging her to continue these habits, you can certainly limit cavities and often prevent them.
What to Feed Your Child and What to Avoid
Are there certain foods that might cause cavities? Are there any foods that can help prevent them? What your child eats can affect the health of his teeth. Sugary foods are often associated with cavities, but that can be misleading. Chocolate milk, for example, is okay. It provides the protein, calcium, and vitamins that kids need for strong teeth. And since kids like it, they're apt to drink more of it than white milk. On the other hand, crackers, popcorn, and breads can actually take longer to dissolve and stay in the mouth longer than some candies, providing food for cavity-causing bacteria.
What to Avoid
By contrast, some foods actually help prevent cavities. For example, certain types of cheese can help neutralize the production of cavity-causing acids. Cheese and other dairy products also contain calcium, which is needed to make teeth strong. Raw, crunchy fruits and vegetables scrape away some of the bacteria and plaque in the mouth, thus reducing the risk of cavities. Keep these tips in mind:
- How often your child eats is more important than what he eats. Offer your child snacks no more than three or four times a day.
- Cooked starches, such as breads, crackers, pastas, pretzels, and potato chips, contribute to cavities just as much as sugary foods, because they tend to dissolve slowly and linger in the mouth.
- A food with sugar or starch is less likely to cause cavities if it's eaten with other foods rather than alone. Foods such as crunchy fruits and vegetables, for instance, can help "move" sugary or starchy foods out of the mouth.
- Children need protein, vitamins, and minerals (especially calcium and phosphorous) to build strong teeth and to resist tooth decay and gum disease.
When is my child ready to start brushing his teeth on his own? You'll need to continue helping your child brush and floss his teeth until he's at least age 5. Some children may need help brushing until age 10. Your pediatrician or pediatric dentist will let you know when your child is able to brush on his own. The important thing is that your child brush his teeth at least twice a day and floss before bedtime. Flossing is the only way to remove the plaque that accumulates between the teeth and below the gum line -- areas where a toothbrush can't reach and decay often begins.
Should I give my child fluoride supplements? The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends fluoride supplements for children who live in communities that don't have optimally fluoridated drinking water. However, overfluoridating children can lead to fluorosis -- disruption in enamel formation during tooth development. Fluorosis can cause tooth discoloration or surface irregularities.
Ask your dentist to determine whether fluoride supplements would be appropriate for your child.
What can I do to prevent injuries to my child's teeth? When it comes to protecting your child's mouth, the safety habits that prevent injuries to teeth are every bit as important as good hygiene. Activities such as baseball, soccer, football, karate, and roller-blading all pose potential hazards to your child's teeth. As a general rule, your child should wear a mouth guard whenever there's a chance that she'll come into contact with other participants or with hard surfaces.
If your child chips or breaks a tooth during a game, or in an injury or fall, you should take her to the pediatric dentist immediately. If the whole tooth has been knocked out, the old dental myth does hold true: Put your child's tooth in milk immediately and get right to the dentist. The calcium in the milk helps keep the cells on the root surface of the tooth alive, which is essential for the dentist to be able to reattach the tooth. The longer the tooth is out of the mouth, the less likely it is that the dentist will be able to save it.
When Kids Need Braces
What if the dentist says my child needs braces? Although most children don't get braces until about age 12, in certain cases pediatric dentists recommend an earlier use of them to correct structural problems in the teeth or jaws. These structural problems include teeth that stick out beyond the lip, severe crowding, a crossbite (when the lower teeth overlap with the upper ones), and an underbite (when the jaw sticks out abnormally). Since each case needs to be treated individually, it's best to get a second opinion if a dentist is recommending braces for a child who still has baby teeth.