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Baby-Teeth Basics

toddler girl with giant toothbrush

Alexandra Grablewski

Just because your child's pearly whites will wind up with the Tooth Fairy one day doesn't mean you should treat them like temps. Healthy baby teeth are essential for helping kids learn to chew, speak clearly, and smile with confidence, and for ensuring that their permanent teeth come in properly.

Although parents pay close attention to a toddler's every sniffle, they often overlook her oral health. Bad idea. Dental disease is the single most common childhood illness, and a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that cavities among young kids are on the rise; 28 percent of them have cavities in their baby teeth. For your child, that could mean a trip to the dentist for scary drilling. The good news: Tooth decay is almost totally preventable -- as long as you take good care of your child's choppers.

If your 1-year-old hasn't been to the dentist, book an appointment now. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend having a first checkup by the time your child turns 1. It won't last long -- the dentist can quickly spot early signs of plaque buildup and decay. She'll also make sure his teeth, mouth, throat, and airways are developing properly. Since many dentists suggest waiting until age 3, you're better off taking him to a pediatric specialist in your area. Plus, the kid-friendly atmosphere, including toys, videos, and pint-size chairs will make the experience less intimidating.

The dentist will spend more time discussing your child's oral health and addressing your concerns (such as sore gums or the rate at which teeth are coming in). If your child uses a pacifier, the dentist will probably encourage you to wean him by age 2 to prevent potential bite problems.

Don't count on your child being a willing patient. "Most toddlers get upset, so the dentist has to sneak a look while they're screaming," says Jamie Johnson, DDS, creator of Smiles for a Lifetime, a DVD designed to calm young kids' fears about visiting the dentist. Practicing how to open wide before an exam may ease your child's fears, and things should get a bit easier at the next visit.

Get into the routine of cleaning your child's teeth twice a day -- once after breakfast and again before she goes to bed. If she doesn't have teeth yet (some kids get their first one as late as 17 months), wrap a wet washcloth around your finger and gently wipe her gums. This removes plaque and helps her adjust to the idea of having something inside her mouth. Once her teeth poke through, switch to an infant toothbrush. Dip it in water, but hold the fluoride toothpaste until she turns 2.

Need ideas for getting your child to cooperate? Be creative. Let her pick out a toothbrush at the drugstore. Sing a song to distract her from the task. Or ask if she wants to "brush" by herself first. "Letting your child play with the brush for a while makes it seem like a game to her, so she's more willing to let you take over," says Philip Hunke, DDS, president of the AAPD. Aim to spend a full minute cleaning the inside and outside surfaces of her teeth and gums.

Believe it or not, you should start flossing your child's teeth too. Start as soon as two of her teeth touch each other. Back molars are the hardest to reach -- and at the greatest risk for decay.

It's common sense that limiting the amount of sugar your child eats will help prevent tooth decay. But this may surprise you: Letting your child suck on a bottle for an hour may do more harm to his teeth than eating a dish of ice cream. How so? Every time your child consumes something that contains sugar or starch, the bacteria in his mouth produce an acid that eats away at tooth enamel. The longer your child's teeth are in contact with the food, the more damage is done. That explains why you should never put your child down to sleep with a bottle -- and why the AAPD advises against at-will nighttime breastfeeding (which exposes a child to fermentable carbohydrates that can lead to decay).

To further reduce the risk of cavities, feed your child nutritious snacks (such as fruits and veggies) instead of sweets. If he's thirsty between meals, give him water instead of a sweetened beverage or juice. And don't share utensils with your child, since you could transfer cavity-causing bacteria through your saliva. If you need to taste his food -- or want him to try yours -- use separate spoons.

Your child won't object when it's time to brush -- if you use one of these.

Oral-B Stages Toothbrush

Once he sees the lovable Baby Einstein characters, your child won't mind putting this brush in his mouth. ($3; drugstore.com.)

Gund Elmo Hand Puppet

If your toddler won't let you brush, maybe she'll let her favorite furry red monster do the job. ($15; gund.com.)

Orajel Toddler Training Toothpaste

A tiny amount of this yummy, fluoride-free gel will encourage her to open up. ($4; walgreens.com.)

You probably know that fluoride strengthens teeth and prevents decay. So why shouldn't your toddler use it? Simple: Because too much of a good thing can be bad. Most 1-year-olds can't resist swallowing toothpaste, and ingesting large amounts of it can lead to fluorosis, a condition that causes defects in the enamel (including discoloration and uneven surfaces) of permanent teeth and leaves them more vulnerable to cavities.

Your child won't be ready for fluoride toothpaste until age 2 or 3 (when she learns to stop swallowing it). In the meantime, make sure she gets enough of the compound from other sources. If your local drinking water isn't fluoridated, ask your dentist whether your child needs to take a supplement.


Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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