Parents are a child's first teachers in life and they play a significant role in maintaining their child's overall health. In observance of National Children's Dental Health Month, the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) encourages parents to introduce good oral health habits to their children during infancy.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay affects children in the United States more than any other chronic infectious disease, highlighting the need for thorough oral care and regular dental visits. The ideal time for a child to visit the dentist is six months after the child's first teeth erupt. During this initial visit, a dentist will be able to examine the development of the child's mouth.
"Parents are surprised when I tell them that their infants can develop tooth decay and cavities soon after their teeth first appear," says AGD spokesperson Steven A. Ghareeb, DDS, FAGD. "We usually call this baby bottle tooth decay, which is caused by the long-term exposure to liquids containing sugars like milk, formula, and fruit juice."
In addition to tooth decay, other dental problems, such as teething irritations, gum disease, and prolonged thumb or pacifier sucking, often start early. The sooner the child visits a dentist, the better.
There are many things that parents can do with their child at home to maintain good oral health:
- Clean your infant's gums with a clean, damp cloth twice a day.
- Ask your dentist when you may begin to rub a tiny dab of toothpaste on your child's gums. Doing so will help your child become accustomed to the flavor of toothpaste.
- As soon as the first teeth come in, begin brushing them with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and a pea-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste.
- Help a young child brush at night, which is the most important time to brush, due to lower salivary flow during sleep and higher susceptibility to cavities and plaque.
- By approximately age 5, your child can learn to brush his or her teeth with proper parental instruction and supervision.
"The best way to teach a child how to brush is to lead by your good example," says Dr. Ghareeb. "Allowing your child to watch you brush your teeth teaches the importance of good oral hygiene."
Children, like adults, should see the dentist every six months. Some dentists may schedule interim visits for every three months when the child is very young to build the child's comfort and confidence levels or for treatment needs.