My 8-year-old doesn't have cavities or crooked teeth and that's not by chance. Here's my oral health guide for parents with kids of all ages.

By Kami Hoss, DDS, MS
July 23, 2020
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Eric Jeon

When I was growing up, I had more cavities than I'm willing to admit, and my mouth was so small that I had four of my permanent teeth removed in order to get braces for three years. I even got braces a second time as an adult during my orthodontic residency for an additional two years.

If it were all genetics, my 8-year-old son would be out of luck and doomed for a life of cavities and crooked teeth. But with an orthodontist dad and a pediatric dentist mom, his oral health was not going to be left to chance. He has no cavities, and his bite and teeth alignment are as ideal as it can be for his age.

Turns out, luck has little to do with great teeth; it has everything to do with planning ahead and helping the mouth grow and develop correctly. So for my fellow parents, I want to share eight tips my wife and I took to reduce the likelihood of cavities and crooked teeth. These steps are for babies, children, and teens, and could save you a lot of time and money on dental work in the years ahead.

For Babies

Consider the oral benefits of breastfeeding

While doctors usually encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies because it protects infants from allergies, improves stomach health, and reduces the risk of infections, those same medical professionals too often leave out how it helps oral health. With breastmilk's mix of complex proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, it nourishes the growing mouth and the new microbiome seeded by a baby's passing through the birth canal. And breastfeeding minimizes the chances of cavities in baby teeth.

Additionally, when the breast flattens against a baby's palate, the breast's weight and physical shape helps the palate form correctly. When breastfeeding, a baby's mouth muscles are also strengthened from the sucking motion and teaches the baby to breathe through the nose. All of these factors aid with the correct growth of the jaws, lessening dental crowding as the child matures.

But if you're not breastfeeding—or didn't breastfeed—don't worry too much; it's not the only way to ensure oral health.

Wean off night feeding

Getting your baby to fall asleep by feeding them can lead to poor oral health. The milk, formula, or juice can linger on a sleeping baby's teeth, which may cause cavities. Enamel is thinner on baby teeth than on permanent teeth. What's more, the pulp on baby teeth is relatively larger—therefore, damage from cavities happens more quickly.

Wiping your baby's gums and teeth after feeding will help, but if your child is physically ready to sleep through the night, weaning them off of night feeding would be best to protect their teeth.

And here's another reason for stopping night feeding that will resonate with all parents of newborns: Your little one will be more likely to sleep through the night if the sleep association with feeding is gone. Your whole household will be more well-rested.

Monitor thumb-sucking, as well as pacifier and bottle use

Thumb-sucking can start in the womb and then—if not dealt with—persist well into childhood. If it lasts too long, it can affect the growth of your child's teeth and negatively impact the jaws.

If your little one uses a pacifier or you are bottle-feeding, your child's dentist needs to closely monitor the development of their mouth. While the breast shapes itself to a baby's mouth, pacifiers and bottles make mouths form to them—such a development only makes crooked teeth more likely.

For Older Kids

Pick a quality toothbrush

Include your child in picking out a toothbrush that's fun to use so they will enjoy brushing. This will help them build a positive association with their oral care. Keep in mind: Manual and electric toothbrushes are both fine—whichever option children prefer, they should use.

But when it comes to choosing the right toothbrush, parents need to also pay special attention to the bristles. They should be high-quality for all kids, ultra-soft for infants and toddlers, and soft for older ones.

Show them how to brush properly

Many kids do not brush their teeth correctly. In fact, here are some relevant stats to consider: 5-year-olds only brush 25 percent of their teeth and 11-year-olds only brush 50 percent of their teeth.

It seems simple, but parents need to instruct their children on brushing the entire set of teeth. Teach them that they have incisors, canines, premolars, and molars—and, of course emphasize the need to brush top and bottom teeth as well as in the front and back. They need to brush for two minutes, once in the morning and once in the evening.

Don't buy any old toothpaste

Some toothpaste brands and mouthwashes can kill the oral microbiome, which may disrupt its fragile balance and transform beneficial microbes into a pathogenic state or allow new, more opportunistic ones to take hold.

The need for this delicate microbiome balance is why I would caution everyone against using random, over-the-counter toothpaste brands and mouthwashes (especially the ones containing alcohol or antibacterial ingredients). Always consult with your dentist to use oral care products that will serve your children's oral health needs.

Limit the sweets

Did you know we eat an average of 152 pounds of sugar every year? It's true. And while we love sugar, so do Streptococcus mutans, which are a primary decay-causing bacterium in our mouths. They absorb the sugar and excrete acids that gnaw away on the teeth and create cavities. Of course, my son loves sugar, too. (His mom and dad may be dentists—but he's still a kid!) The main thing is to practice moderation with your family's sugar intake.

Teach them to breathe through the nose

With the exception of children being temporarily congested or enduring strenuous exercise, they need to primarily breathe through their nose. Nose-breathing results in the tongue sitting against the palate, which aids with the proper growth of the jaws and mouth. Nose-breathing can also help the palate grow correctly. Conversely, when breathing via the mouth, our teeth are apart from each other. This signals to our teeth to continue growing, which can lead to an elongation of the face among other unwanted issues.

Dr. Kami Hoss is a San Diego-based orthodontist and dentofacial orthopedist, author, and founder of The Super Dentists and Howard Healthcare Academy. He is on the Board of Counselors at UCLA School of Dentistry where he previously received his doctorate in dental surgery. Dr. Hoss is a nationally recognized speaker and a sought-after expert focusing on oral health and its impact on overall health and emotional well-being. Visit his online profile.

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