Kids’ Dental Health: 21st Century Style

For those of us in the Boomer-ish age range, the notions of dental health have evolved substantially; it’s anticipated we’re the first generation in which a majority will have most of our own teeth for the entirety of our lives. We grew up with parents whose childhood dental habits were shaped by the Great Depression, war and lack of product development. In a best-case scenario, they brushed their teeth with “dental powder” and sometimes just baking soda. Consequently, most of our parents were wearing dentures before they were 50.

Greater access to dental health including regular check-ups and preventative measures have greatly improved the outlook. The fluoridation of drinking water began in 1945, contributing heftily to the decrease in tooth decay in children, though there are more opinions on the Internet than we can count on the possible bad effects of ingesting fluoride from drinking water. And, while fluoride in toothpaste is universally accepted as a good way to prevent tooth decay, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that nearly 40 percent of children ages 3 to 6 used more toothpaste than recommended by dental professionals.

What’s the big deal (other than continually replacing the tube of toothpaste)?

It turns out toothpaste isn’t really “harmless,” and swallowing too much fluoride toothpaste can cause something called, “fluorosis,” causing discoloration in children’s teeth. While not a “medical” condition per se, it does not make for pretty pearly whites. And no one wants their kid to be perceived as a “yuck mouth” (with a nod to a 1970’s Public Service Announcement promoting dental health). The flipside: poor oral health goes beyond aesthetics. Kids with decayed teeth miss more school and receive lower grades than children that do not, according to the CDC.

In light of this information, here are some easy steps to ensure your kids (and grandkids) are doing the right thing when it comes to their teeth:

  • Once a baby’s first tooth erupts through the gums until they are age two, gently wipe their gums with a clean, damp washcloth or gauze pad over your finger after breakfast and before bedtime. There are also “infant finger brushes” you can purchase. (This may be one of those items you might get for a baby shower and try to stifle a “wth?” response 😊 Now you know!)
  • Avoid sugary foods and beverages and never put a baby to bed with a bottle of milk or juice.
  • Encourage drinking from a cup around the age of one.
  • While you might let your toddler experiment with “brushing their teeth” to become familiar with it, resist the temptation to use fluoride toothpaste until at least two.
  • Make a visit to your dentist around your child’s first birthday!
  • Children ages 2 to 3 should only use a tiny smear of toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice; always watch them brush and encourage them to spit out the toothpaste.
  • While dried fruits are a popular treat, remember they are full of sugar and stick to teeth.
  • From the ages of 3 to 6, a child should only be using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.
  • Until a child is about six, you should supervise their toothbrushing to ensure they aren’t swallowing toothpaste or using an excessive amount.
  • Other preventative treatments available from the dentist? According to the CDC, fluoride varnish can prevent about one-third (33%) of cavities in the primary (baby) teeth while applying dental sealants to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth prevent 80% of cavities.