Getting kids to brush their teeth can be agony. But letting them neglect their teeth can cause health issues that far outweigh the battle in your bathroom.
Poor dental hygiene can lead to gum disease, decay and tooth loss. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that dental cavities are the most common chronic disease of childhood. Long-term dental issues can include crooked teeth, overbites and underbites.
But beyond tooth troubles, poor brushing can also have negative effects on your child’s overall health. Untreated cavities can lead to abscesses — causing infections that affect the entire body. Correcting some dental issues requires anesthesia, which always comes with a small risk. And some studies suggest that inflammation from periodontal or gum disease increases the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
To protect your child from dental problems, instill proper hygiene habits early. “Get them used to going to the dentist at a young age so it’s not seen as negative or scary,” says Dr. Matthew Messoline, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Children shouldn’t remember a time when they didn’t have to brush their teeth.”
Dental care recommendations vary by age; Dr. Messoline offers the following guidelines:
Good dental health starts in the womb. Research has linked maternal periodontal disease with preterm delivery and low birth weights. So expectant mothers should floss daily, brush twice a day, drink plenty of water and schedule regular checkups.
While baby teeth don’t last, they still need proper care. Keep your baby’s teeth and gums healthy by:
- Exclusively breastfeeding, if possible, for up to 6 months
- Introducing solid foods around 6 months, with no added sugar
- Brushing new teeth, as soon as they appear, twice a day with a soft, child-sized toothbrush
- Using only a small smear of fluoride toothpaste, up to age 3
- Flossing spaces too small to clean with a toothbrush
- Not allowing a bottle in the bed at night
- Scheduling your baby’s first dental visit when he or she has teeth, or around age 1
After age 3, kids should brush their teeth daily with a pea-sized portion of fluoride toothpaste. They should floss daily — if string floss poses a challenge, use flosser picks. Plan to schedule regular checkups every 6 months, but ask your child’s dentist for specific recommendations on frequency.
Preteens and teens
When children reach the age of independent thinking, it’s more important than ever to remind them to brush and floss. They should also eat a healthy diet and steer clear of sugary foods and cigarettes. If needed, orthodontic treatments usually begin between ages 8 and 14, at the dentist’s recommendation.
Helping your child establish good dental habits is a gift that goes beyond the bathroom sink. “It’s one element in the bigger picture,” says Dr. Messoline. “And the sooner you get them on board, the better off they’ll be in the long run.”