Brush up on good oral hygiene for Children's Dental Health Month
As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about.
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month and it arrives with a warning from medical professionals that — yes, mom and dad — you are responsible for your kids’ good dental health habits.
“The best way for kids to develop good habits is for parents to be good role models,” says Angela Rinchuse, professor and program director for the dental hygiene associate degree program at Westmoreland County Community College.
So, if you want your children to brush their teeth regularly, you need to brush your teeth regularly.
But long before they can imitate what you do, you have to do the job for them.
“As soon as they’re born, you should start using a soft, wet washcloth on their dental arches, soft palate and tongue to wipe away the biofilm in their mouths,” Rinchuse says.
If their mouths being cleaned is one of their earliest memories, she says, kids are more likely to accept dental hygiene as part of everyday life as they get older.
ABCs of dental care
From wiping a baby’s gums with a soft cloth, parents can progress to using a fingertip toothbrush and then to a regular soft-bristle brush as baby teeth emerge.
You can do a good job with either a manual or electric toothbrush, says Dr. Elaine Geris, a dentist with a practice in Lower Burrell. Sweet toothpastes aimed at young brushers also are fine, as they contain artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.
A “thin smear” of toothpaste is all that is needed, graduating to a blob the size of a frozen pea at age 2 to 3, Rinchuse says: “Don’t glob it on like a Dairy Queen cone.”
Even when a child is capable of holding a toothbrush, it’s a good idea for parents to continue to supervise and even do the brushing, since a young child won’t have the manual dexterity to reach all teeth.
“Don’t be afraid to get in there and brush for them, even if you’re met with resistance,” Geris says.
The American Dental Association recommends that children see a dentist in the first year of life, Rinchuse says. This is partly to familiarize them with the process, but also to detect any early decay issues or dental anomalies.
Geris says she recommends regular six-month checkups starting at 2 to 3 years old, unless parents are concerned that there is an issue before that.
Who’s the boss?
Monitoring good dental health is just another basic parenting skill, Rinchuse says. It goes along with setting guidelines and establishing discipline in other areas of a child’s life.
“It’s something that parents really need to embrace for the health of their children,” she says.
“I’ll be talking to a parent in our clinic and they’ll say, ‘Johnny won’t let me brush his teeth,’ and I look over at Johnny and he’s 2 feet tall,” she says. “So who’s really in charge here?”
Both Rinchuse and Geris say that, though dentist visits might not be “fun” in the traditional sense, dental professionals do their best to make them enjoyable — or at least routine — for young children. It helps when parents treat them as just another regular occurrence in life.
Have some fun
MouthHealthy, the ADA’s online guide to dental health, offers tips for making brushing not just an integral part of family life, but also a time for fun:
• Brush with your kids to set a good example.
• Let kids choose their own toothpaste and toothbrushes.
• Get into a brushing routine and stick with it, even on vacation or special event days.
• Make brushing time pass quickly by playing a favorite song, reading/listening to a story or even dancing.
• Reinforce good habits with stories or videos that show characters taking care of their teeth.
• Reward good behavior with stickers or other small treats (“Just don’t make the reward candy,” Rinchuse says.)
First line of defense
Brushing isn’t even the first line of defense against tooth decay, Geris says. Monitoring what goes into your child’s mouth in the first place is key.
“Sometimes it can be challenging, but diet is so important to healthy teeth,” she says.
Geris has a particular bone to pick with fruit snacks. The name makes them sound like a healthy choice for a quick pick-me-up, but it’s misleading, she says.
Sorry, parents, but that go-to snack found in many a mom’s purse fits in the same sugar-soaked category as candy, regular chewing gum, fruit juices and soft drinks.
“Fruit snacks are basically just candy,” she says. “They stick on kids’ teeth. If they’re eaten with a school lunch, all that sugar stays on their teeth all afternoon.
“Sometimes you still have to let kids have them — there are just those days,” Geris says. “But you want to make it a treat and not an everyday thing.”
Another bad habit that can lead to early tooth decay is putting a little one to bed with a bottle, Rinchuse says.
“Whatever is in the bottle stays on the teeth all night,” she says. “That’s one of the worst mistakes you can make.”
Choosing a dentist
Because your dentist is a part of your total health care team, it’s important to find one you like and trust, says the Pennsylvania Dental Association.
You can ask family and friends for recommendations in your area. If you are moving, you can ask for a recommendation based on information from your current dentist’s dental association memberships.
The PDA website has a “Find a Dentist” tool that also can help with Pennsylvania dentists. The directory includes a dentist’s specialty area, insurances that are accepted and methods of payment.
Other factors to be considered include:
• Are the dentist’s office hours convenient?
• Is the office within a reasonable travel distance?
• What is the dentist’s approach to preventive dentistry?
• How are emergencies handled outside of office hours?
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shirley_trib.