Let’s face it — it’s summer and parenting can get a little lax. Bath time can often involve just a hose (kidding… kind of), dietary concerns are no holds barred at the BBQs and bed time before sunset can often be a pipe-dream. However, one area you don’t want to put off until winter is your child’s teeth. From advice on how to get your toddler to let you brush, biggest problem areas in older children’s chompers (and how to avoid them) to the age your child can finally start brushing their own (hint: not for a while) and much more (including questions posted on the Seahorse Lounge answered), Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Finger of San Diego Pediatric Dental Group to get to the tooth of the matter.
Do you have tips for helping parents brush antsy toddlers teeth? We had one reader ask, “Anyone have any suggestions to make it easier? My lil’ guy loves his toothbrush – in fact he has like four of them. But, getting him to actually brush or let me get a decent brush going is another story. Help!”
You need to start very early getting the child used to you being in their mouth. When the teeth first start to erupt, start wiping down the teeth with a rubber finger brush (these brushes fit over the parents finger). This will get the child used to the parent being in the child’s mouth. Do this at least everyday and even better after each feeding. This way it will become part of the little ones routine. when more teeth have erupted, generally around 4 to 6 teeth, you can graduate the child to a small toothbrush. The child can play with the toothbrush all they want, but they have to know that mom or dad have to finish up with the brushing. This seems to be a problem with a little bit older children around 3 or 4. With young children, if they are very resistant to you brushing their their teeth, you may want to use some sort of distraction to help you. You can brush the child’s teeth in the TV room. Put on a favorite video, sit down on the floor and have the child lie on your lap — there is no rule that you have to brush your child’s teeth in the bathroom.
I’ve read that you need to start taking your child to the dentist at age one, but this seems so young. At what age should they REALLY start going? Why that age?
It is important to have your child’s first dental visit by the age of one, especially if this is your first child. On the first visit, we really want to assess the child. We want to look at the teeth and gums. We want to see if everything is developing normally, and are there any problems that may be starting. We also want to know about tooth brushing, oral habits, nursing and bottle use. We want to prevent any dental problems before they arise, and oftentimes just some simple changes can really prevent some serious dental disease. Of course most of the children that I see do not have any problems, and their parents are doing a great job. There are parents, however, that do need some guidance. I have — in the course of my career — needed to extract the four upper front teeth on a child under the age of two due to dental decay. This just breaks my heart when a few simple changes could have prevented this from happening.
What are the problem areas you find on children’s teeth?
There are several problem areas that I find in children. In young children, the problems usually are due to nighttime bottle use or nursing. The problem with this is that when a child falls asleep, they stop salivating. The milk or formula does not wash off the teeth. After feeding, you need to at least wipe the teeth down before the child falls back asleep. It does not matter whether it is milk from a bottle or from nursing, they both can cause decay. In older children most of the problems I see relate to not enough flossing. The contacts between baby teeth are tighter than on adult teeth, so flossing is almost more important in children.
What can parents do to prevent this?
Remember sugar is sugar (as far as the bacteria that cause decay are concerned). So if your child is nursing or on a bottle, either brush the teeth or at least wipe the teeth down after feeding. I would really prefer that if a child demands a bottle at night, just put water in it. Water wont cause decay. Probably 75% of the cavities that I see in children age 4 to 8 are cavities in between the baby teeth. Once the spaces between the teeth have closed, you need to start flossing your child’s teeth.
What are some of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to their children’s teeth?
Not flossing enough. Start flossing between the teeth once the spaces have closed. Generally the back teeth come in spaced apart, but those spaces close up over time. Just floss once a day, after dinner and before bed.
And is it correct that you recommend parents brush their child’s teeth until the age of 8?
Children can brush their teeth at any age. However mom or dad need to finish up the brushing. Young children generally will not damage their teeth and gums by improper brushing, but they just don’t do a good job at getting the teeth really clean. The age at which a child can brush alone really depends on the child. Some children can brush alone at the age of 5 or 6. Some children don’t do a good job even at age 12. Flossing is another matter. If you floss incorrectly, you can damage your gums. Moms and dads need to floss up till about age 10. Most young children do not have the manual dexterity.
Another Breezy Mama Reader Question: “My son’s front teeth are starting to push out because he sucks his fingers, but, does this matter since they are his baby teeth?”
Finger habits can cause some problems that can even continue until the permanent teeth erupt. Children that suck their fingers can change the shape of their mouth and this can affect swallowing and speech patterns. The mouth can self correct once the habit has stopped, but not always. Also the swallowing and speech issues may also not go away once the sucking has stopped. The real problem is stopping the sucking habit once the child has discovered their fingers or thumb.
Does toddler toothpaste really do anything? I know they can’t use adult paste because of swallowing the fluoride, but what’s the point of the toddler paste? To get them used to it?
Toddler tooth cleaner does help. Yes it does get the child used to using fluoridated toothpaste at a later age, but there are other benefits to the child. Tooth cleaners like toothpastes have surfactants in them. This causes the foaming action on the teeth (like a soap) and does help clean the teeth better. That being said, I never want the toothpaste or cleaner to be an issue with cleaning the teeth. You can clean the teeth just fine with a toothbrush and water, but the tooth cleaner helps.
Are there any early indicators that a child may need braces?
You can often tell if a young child will need braces. What I first look for is the amount of spacing on the lower front teeth. I want to see some spacing down there, if the those teeth are tight or even crowded, the child will most likely be crowded when the permanent teeth erupt. We also look for signs of under bites or excessive overbites in the children. If the skeletal patterns of the young children are off, these often do not change with age.
It seems as if kids these days are getting braces younger and younger–what’s the point? Shouldn’t they wait until their teens so their teeth are more “permanent”?
Orthodontics is often done on younger children because we can get nicer results and a more stable bite in the long run. While the child is growing, we can use this growth to our advantage. If the jaw relationship is off, we can change the bases that the teeth sit on to a more favorable position. Orthodontists can also widen jaws so all the teeth fit in without having to extract permanent teeth. Of course every child that would benefit from braces, does not need early braces. I do like to send children to the orthodontist around age 7 or 8 for an evaluation. If the child will benefit from early treatment or it would be just as well to wait until all the permanent teeth have erupted, this is something that I would like to have the parents discuss with the orthodontist.
San Diego Pediatric Dental Group’s Dr. Stephen Finger received a BA in Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1977. In May 1982, he received a Doctorate of Dental Medicine Degree from Washington University School of Dental Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Upon graduation, he was awarded the American Society of Dentistry for Children Award for excellence in children’s dentistry. Dr. Finger continued his studies at UCLA where he received his Pediatric Dental Certificate and a Master’s Degree in Public Health. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry.
He enjoys gardening and traveling California with his lovely wife.
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