By: Francesca Fiori
Prior to 3 years of age, pediatricians examine children’s mouths to ensure their teeth and gums are healthy. After the age of 3, children transition to either a pediatric dentist, referred to as a pedodontist or a general family dentist that accepts young children. Pedodontists typically begin seeing children after all 20 baby teeth have come in. Young children may be referred to a pediatric dentist early if dental complications arise, such as an injury to the mouth that results in tooth loss or chipping, if the teeth appear discolored and show signs of decay or if the teeth become exceptionally painful, and the child becomes unable to tolerate cold or hot fluids and foods. Regular dental examinations, a healthy diet and proper dental care that includes brushing, flossing and fluoride will ensure dental health, as well as contribute to a child’s overall health and well-being.
Importance to Overall Health
Decay of the teeth is among the most common diseases worldwide and in the majority of cases, entirely preventable. Chronic tooth decay and inadequate dental care can lead to various gum diseases, as well as periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is a bacterial plaque of the mouth, characterized by a colorless, sticky film that covers the teeth that can result in tooth loss, serious health problems and severe illnesses throughout the body, as well as oral cancer. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, plaque and bacteria in the mouth releases toxins that eventually circulate through the bloodstream and may affect vital organs in the body, destroy bone tissue, cause atherosclerosis and inflammatory diseases, and may trigger heart attacks. Reports of the U.S. Surgeon General state evidence that oral diseases lead to complications associated with unfavorable pregnancy outcomes, diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Promoting Dental Health
The key strategy to promoting children’s dental health involves providing a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid feeding children cookies, candy and sweet, sticky foods, which promote tooth decay. Provide starch-based and sticky foods, such as crackers, chips, dried fruits and rains moderately, and only during regular mealtimes prior to brushing teeth. Select 100 percent fruit juices, as opposed to juice drinks that contain high amounts of sugar. Healthy snack options include yogurt, cheese and fruit. Ensure children receive a regular, diet that consists of healthy balanced food choices, which are essential to dental health and their over-all well-being. Avoid putting babies and children to bed with bottles filled with milk or juice, as it can result in erosion of tooth enamel and in serious cases, discolored and pitted teeth, referred to as “bottle mouth.”
Caring for Children’s Teeth
Before a baby’s teeth come in, the mouth should be wiped clean using a soft, damp and slightly warm washcloth, as it prevents damaging bacteria from building up in the mouth. As the teeth come in and until approximately 3 years of age, brush children’s teeth with water and a soft-bristled toothbrush. Introduce fluoridated toothpaste between 2 and 3 years of age and ensure the child brushes their teeth for a minimum for two minutes, twice a day. Fluoride toothpastes harden tooth enamel and keep them strong. Use a small amount of toothpaste, approximately the size of a pea to ensure the child doesn’t ingest it. Being a role model and brushing teeth with children enables them to learn by example. When recommended by a pediatric dentist, flossing should be introduced to ensure pieces of food and plaque below the gum line are removed.
Negative Effects on Children’s Oral Health
Negative effects on children’s dental health include long-term pacifier use, thumb sucking, lip sucking and tongue thrusting. Although not generally harmful, if children aren’t weaned from the pacifier or cease sucking their thumbs, lip sucking or tongue thrusting after 5 years of age and when their permanent teeth come in, all can result in unbalanced pressure in the mouth and possible malformation in the way teeth grow, as well as an overbite or damage to the jaw. Lip sucking is a habit of repeatedly holding the lower lip underneath the front teeth. Tongue thrusting refers to sealing the mouth by pushing the top of the tongue upward and against the lips.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, tooth decay is five times as common as asthma, and seven times more common than seasonal allergies. Tooth decay can begin as soon as the first tooth appears if proper dental care isn’t performed. Babies are born without the bacteria that cause cavities. Generally, they contract it from germs passed through unclean eating utensils, unhealthy eating habits and improper dental care. Ensuring regular dental practices become a healthy habit will prevent cavities, gum diseases and periodontal disease. Cavities are holes that form in the teeth when germs from bacteria build up in the mouth. Signs of tooth decay include white, brown or yellow spots on the teeth. Besides poor diet and dental care, other risk factors for cavities include a premature birth or low birth weight, and irregular dental checkups. Pediatric dentists typically use dental sealants as a preventive measure against cavities, as it coats the teeth and bonds tooth enamel.
Advice for Good Oral Health
An essential component to promoting good dental health consists of providing proper care to babies that have teeth and children that have toothaches. Babies begin teething when their primary teeth break through the gums at approximately 6 months of age and 3 to 5 days before the tooth pushes through the gums. Signs of teething include biting fingers and toys to relieve pressure, refusal to eat or drink, excessive drooling and crying. Mild symptoms aren’t generally a concern, however, if a fever develops, a pediatrician should be consulted. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be administered to relieve pain and discomfort. Aspirin shouldn’t be dispensed to children, as it is linked to Reye syndrome, which is a rare and serious disease. In addition, a cold teething ring or gently rubbing the baby’s gums with a clean finger or gauze will help soothe sore gums and make them more comfortable. Toothaches are the result of inflammation of the pulp inside the tooth, which are surrounded by sensitive tissue and nerves. Symptoms of toothaches consist of a general feeling of being tired or fatigued, pain around the jaw, a tooth that is painful to touch, a constant throbbing around the tooth, and an increase in pain from hot or cold foods and fluids. Treatments for toothaches include pain medications, antibiotics, warm water salt rinses, tooth extraction, draining of abscesses and root canals.