I learned so much from a conversation that I recently had with Dr. Mary Hayes. She is a pediatric dentist with a private practice in Chicago along with being an American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson.
Initially, we spoke about the barriers to pediatric dental health. I thought that finances were the biggest hurdle since many people don’t have dental insurance. Although, the doctor agreed that finances were one barrier, she listed social and educational reasons also. She noted that many of our expectations come from our parents or grandparents and unfortunately, dental health has not been considered as important as other things. Social habits such as not drinking regular water, but sweetened juices (especially for those who come from countries where the water is undrinkable) also contribute to dental decay.
I’m a practical person, so we then discussed some “best practices”. Some things that I found interesting to note were the following:
-Kids should have their first dental visit six months after they get their first tooth or at one year old (whichever comes first). The purpose of the initial visit is for parents to get an understanding regarding what affects their child’s dental health. The goal is for the dentist to be the parent’s coach. The best way to find a dentist is by referrals. The ADA (http://www.ada.org/), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (http://www.aap.org/) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) (http://www.aapd.org/) all offer referral services on their sites. Once a dentist is chosen, the amount of times that the kids need to see the dentist a year depends on the child – their needs and their risk factors. It’s best to make this decision with your dentist.
-It was interesting to note that parents should brush their kids’ teeth until they are six or seven. Until then, kids are just “playing” when they brush. In the desire to make their kids more self-reliant, parents have been allowing kids to brush by themselves earlier which is not the best. If kids do insist on brushing their own teeth, they should get the chance only after the adults have brushed first. Also, kids should only begin using fluoride toothpaste once they learn to spit (which usually takes place between two and four years old). As far as how often kids should brush, the answer was after each meal and before bed “ideally”/two to three times a day at a minimum.
-When it comes to flossing, kids only need to floss once their teeth start touching together (most young kids have gaps between their teeth). Kids are usually able to floss well by the time they are ten to twelve. (On a side note, as to the age-old question “Is it better to brush or floss first?” the answer is, “It doesn’t matter.”)
Dr. Hayes and I then spoke about the overall importance of dental health. We talked about how important it is for problems (i.e. cavities) to be treated in the “baby teeth” even though those teeth will come out to make place for the permanent teeth. One of the main reasons that it is important to treat the baby teeth is that they form the pattern for the permanent teeth. If the baby teeth have a lot of decay, the permanent teeth probably will also. In addition, poor dental care may cause a future shift in the permanent teeth which can cause misaligned teeth (making braces necessary) or even impacted teeth. Also, infections can possibly happen. This causes kids to suffer unnecessary pain. As an example of an extreme case, don’t forget the big news story last year about the boy who died from an infection that started with an abscessed tooth when the bacteria from his tooth spread to his brain. Dental health should not be taken lightly!
To sum: hygiene (proper dental care with parental supervision); “dentist as coach” and diet (making sure that kids get enough calcium and other vitamins for strong, healthy teeth) all combine to give kids the best chance at having beautiful, healthy smiles for a lifetime.