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Oral care, from crib to college: Caring for children’s teeth at every life stage

Good oral health care is about educating, modeling, and having fun along the way. In recognition of National Smile Month, here are some simple tips from Delta Dental for parents, caregivers and the children they care for to build healthy oral care habits from infancy into adulthood.

Taking care of tiny teeth during infancy

Baby teeth demand special care: teething is tied to children’s long-term enamel formation. Therefore, encouraging young ones to practice healthy oral hygiene habits early is critical to long-term oral health.

  1. Practice mindful pacifier use. Don’t overuse pacifiers, especially past age 3, as it may interfere with teeth positions and mouth shape. Avoid dipping a pacifier into honey or sugary liquids which may increase cavities. Wash pacifiers often with warm, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
  2. Brush before teething begins. Before your child starts teething, regularly run a clean, damp washcloth over their gums to mitigate harmful bacteria.
  3. Introduce early checkups. As soon as your child’s first tooth appears (or before their first birthday, whichever comes first), take them to the dentist. To familiarize your child with what will happen during their appointment, consider playing “dentist” with them. Help your child develop a positive attitude about dentists by avoiding words like “pain,” “hurt” or “needle”.

Introducing healthy habits during childhood

Over half of children aged 6 to 8 get a cavity in at least one baby tooth. Lead by example to encourage healthy oral health habits.

  1. Brush properly. Have children use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Soften bristles with water before brushing. For children aged 3 to 6, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Brush lightly with fluoride toothpaste for two minutes twice daily with special attention to the gum line. Avoid vigorous scrubbing. Floss at least once daily.
  2. Limit sugary foods. Stock your home with healthy foods. Avoid frequent snacking on sugary or starchy foods.
  3. Make it fun. Modeling good behavior builds lasting habits. Reverse roles: Have your child brush your teeth. Or brush your teeth at the same time as your child, making a point to show off your shiny, clean teeth.
  4. Incentivize it. If your child brushes for the recommended two minutes twice daily for one week, reward them by letting them choose the next game, movie, meal or family activity.

Checking in on mental health during adolescence

Dental visits can offer a chance to assess how a child’s mental health impacts their oral health. Dental check-ups can highlight underlying health issues and serve as a springboard for intervention.

  1. Spot eating disorders. Bulimia and anorexia, in particular, may cause bad breath, dry mouth, tooth sensitivity, tooth erosion, gum disease, gum decay, tissue damage and canker sores. Your child’s dentist may be able to identify these kinds of issues, offer harm-reduction strategies like fluoride treatments, and recommend a therapist specialized in treating eating disorders.
  2. Curb tobacco use. Young people who vape are more likely to transition over to tobacco cigarettes. And, smokers are about twice as likely to suffer from gum disease and need root canal treatments than non-smokers are. Work with your child’s dentist or physician to help your child quit.

Making the transition to young adulthood easier

Help your adolescent maintain dental hygiene habits and start some new ones along the way.

  1. Carry a travel-sized toothbrush and floss picks. Encourage your child to keep a mini toothbrush and floss picks in their bag so it’s easy to brush and floss after meals and snacks.
  2. Chew sugarless gum. Chewing gum with xylitol (a natural sweetener) after eating will wash away bacteria and help prevent cavities.
  3. Drink water and consume calcium. Stay hydrated with fluoridated tap water. Eat more leafy greens, salmon and dairy products to boost canine strength. Vegans or vegetarians—and everyone—can turn to foods like seaweed, soybeans, pumpkin seeds and almond milk.
  4. Find a dentist. When your child is ready to leave home, perhaps this means they’ll go off to college or a trade school, move out-of-state, start a new job or another adventure, and so on. In the meantime, at some point, your child may need to end health plan coverage under their parent’s plan. Along the way, guide your child in finding the right dental insurance and dentist as they enter a new life stage. Delta Dental can help them find an in-network dentist, prepare for dental visits and know what to expect.

Starting smart oral hygiene practices at an early age shapes children’s and young adults’ long-term health and well-being. That’s worth smiling about!

For more dental tips to set your kids on the right path for a lifetime of healthy oral health habits, head over to Delta Dental’s Wellness Library.

Looking for fun ways to get your kids involved? Share Delta Dental’s  Grin! For Kids magazine with them — they can play fun games and enjoy activities that will teach them about healthy dental habits.