From the day your baby’s first tooth erupts from a swollen gum, good childhood oral health care makes a lasting and critical impact on their health – all the way through adulthood. Dr. Hassan Alzein of Alzein Pediatrics in Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn Illinois says that protecting and improving your child’s overall health often begins right in the mouth.
“Poor oral care can lead to infection, gum disease like periodontitis, cavities, lost teeth, and more. If teeth are not cared for properly, and if professional dental care is not given when there are oral health problems, children can develop serious health problems, especially as they grow into adults.
When bacteria from the mouth gets into the bloodstream through inflammation, infections, or cavities, the inner lining of your child’s heart chambers and valves can become infected, causing endocarditis.
There is a link between poor oral health and pneumonia, heart disease, and atherosclerosis. Periodontitis raises your daughter’s risk of having a premature birth when she is older,” says Dr. Alzein.
Early Oral Care for a Strong Start
Positive oral care for your child should start with that very first tooth. It’s important to establish these habits as soon as parents can because primary, or baby, teeth have very thin enamel and oral disease may spread faster in these first teeth than in permanent teeth.
When do we start brushing?
Start “brushing” as soon as you see that first tooth! Your infant’s mouth should be cleaned after each feeding, and especially after they have teeth. Wet a clean, soft cloth with cool water, hold your baby’s head and use your free hand to gently swipe out their mouth.
When teeth appear, it’s time to start using fluoridated toothpaste. Apply the smallest of dots to a clean cloth and wipe each tooth. Because your infant can’t spit, make sure you use just a dot and then swipe their mouth with a clean cloth dampened with water.
Children should not swallow toothpaste, as infants or even older children. Check the label of your toothpaste to make sure it’s fluoridated; many natural kinds of toothpaste are not.
When do we switch to a real brush?
“When your child turns two, introduce a toothbrush,” says Dr. Alzein. “Use an extra soft-bristled, age-appropriate toothbrush and a pea-sized amount of paste for children up to the age of 6.”
These children may still have difficulty spitting, so the less toothpaste there is to spit out, the better. Teach them how to rinse with water and spit into the sink. While your toddler and preschooler can certainly “do it themselves”, parents should always watch their progress and then do an inspection and “finish up” if children have been lax.
“It’s a good idea to brush together while looking in the mirror,” says Dr. Alzein. “That way, as your child imitates your hand movements, you’ll know they’ve brushed every surface, just like you do.”
Oral Care Habits for Older Children
Children six to eight years of age may be capable of brushing by themselves, but parents should still inspect teeth afterward if they suspect oral care is being neglected.
Your child should brush at least twice a day, morning and night, with a soft-bristled toothbrush. Medium or hard bristles will be too abrasive for young children and can cause inflammation and gum damage. Soft bristles are recommended for gentle and effective cleaning.
Battery-powered toothbrushes with soft bristles can also be used to gently remove the plaque from the teeth and gums.
Proper Brushing Technique
Your child’s toothbrush – and your whole family’s brushes – should be replaced every three to four months, or sooner if it is worn or frayed. If your child has a cold, the flu, strep throat, or other viral or bacterial illness, replace their toothbrush and avoid reintroducing germs to their system.
Dr. Alzein recommends these tips to brush properly:
• Angle a soft-bristled toothbrush at 45 degrees towards the gums of the upper and lower teeth.
• Move the brush gently in a back-and-forth motion with short strokes along the teeth and gums. This technique should be continued along every tooth’s interior and exterior surfaces.
• Place the brush in an upright position to reach behind the upper front teeth and then in a downward position to brush behind the bottom front teeth.
• Brush the tongue to remove bacteria on its surface.
A Good Flossing Routine
Establishing a good flossing routine can be just as beneficial as strong brushing habits. It’s important to get into this habit early for a lifetime of great oral health.
When do we start flossing?
As soon as two teeth are next to each other! Floss between teeth at least once a day, as bacterial plaque and food can settle between even the tiniest of teeth, leading to tooth decay, gum disease, and halitosis.
What’s the proper way to floss?
• Hold a length of floss between the thumb and index finger, twining it around a finger at each end for better control. Use care to not apply too much pressure when inserting the floss between your child’s teeth.
• Adjust the floss into a ‘C’ shaped curve around each tooth and slide it up and down gently along the side of the tooth and under the gumline.
• Use a new section of floss for each tooth to avoid reinserting food and plaque from previous teeth into the next tooth space.
• Consider an interdental brush to clean between teeth that have space between them.
Making Good Childhood Oral Health Fun
Dr. Alzein suggests ways to involve and engage kids in their own oral health care. “Let them pick out their own toothbrush,” he says. “It’s exciting for kids to pick a brush that has their favorite color, character, or superhero. They can also pick their favorite flavor of toothpaste.”
Dr. Alzein also suggests watching videos or reading books about dental hygiene. There are books about going to the dentist and oral care featuring characters such as The Berenstain Bears, Max and Millie, Elmo, and more.
Set a fun, silly timer to help kids brush their teeth for two complete minutes, or play their favorite song to help pass the time. Two minutes can seem like a long time to an impatient child!
“Reward children for good oral care,” says Dr. Alzein. Put stars on a calendar and when your child has reached a pre-set goal, give them a new book or crayons. Plan a fun activity following your child’s dentist visit, like a trip to their favorite park or a bike ride through the neighborhood.
When should we begin going to the dentist?
Regular dental visits should be six months after the first tooth erupts or just after the child’s first birthday. Ask your pediatrician about fluoride varnish treatments, which are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A Strong Foundation for Oral Health
Dr. Alzein says, “When a child is taught a new skill at an early age, they will likely to continue this behaviour throughout adulthood. Teaching proper brushing and flossing techniques right from the start will develop good dental hygiene habits in your child to help them maintain a lifetime of good oral and overall health.”