A child’s smile is a beautiful thing! And strong, healthy teeth are important for more than just bright, confident smiles.
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a time to focus on the importance of children’s oral health, especially how to prevent cavities. Cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases in childhood. Children and adolescents are at higher risk for cavities than adults. But with good dental health habits, cavities are easily preventable.
Get the Facts
- Cavities happen when the bacteria in your mouth metabolize (eat) sugar. The bacteria then produce acid that eats away at the hard outer surface of the teeth, which is made of enamel and dentin. Enamel and dentin contain a lot of the mineral calcium.
- Sometimes called cavities or tooth decay, cavities affect more than 1 in 5 children aged 2 to 5 years. More than half of children aged 6 to 8 have had at least one cavity in their baby teeth (also called primary teeth). And more than half of adolescents aged 12 to 19 have had a cavity in at least one of their permanent teeth.
- Cavities can lead to pain, infection, tooth loss, feelings of unhappiness – especially for teens – and problems eating, speaking, and even learning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than other children.
The good news is there are a few simple ways for parents and caregivers to prevent cavities in children.
So, What Can Parents Do?
Teaching your child good habits and good attitudes about dental health at an early age can help them maintain good oral health for a lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend simple steps to protect children’s oral health:
- After each meal, gently wipe your baby’s gums with a soft, clean cloth.
- Avoid putting your baby to bed with a bottle.
- Schedule your child’s first dental visit by their first birthday, or when their first tooth appears.
- Brush your child’s teeth twice each day.
- Use a soft, small-bristled toothbrush.
- For children under age 2, use plain water to brush.
- When your child is old enough to brush on their own, watch them while they brush.
- Make sure they use only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.
- Make sure they spit out the toothpaste instead of swallowing.
Children who brush their teeth each day with fluoride toothpaste will have fewer cavities. For children under age 2, talk to your dentist or doctor about when to begin using fluoride toothpaste. And learn more about fluoride below.
What to Eat?
A healthy diet is important for strong, healthy teeth. Getting plenty of calcium will help your child’s teeth grow strong. Good sources of calcium include:
- Yogurt (unsweetened is best)
- Collard greens
- Black beans (canned)
Sugary foods and drinks feed the bacteria that cause cavities. So, limit drinks and foods that have added sugars.
- At mealtime, serve water instead of juice or soda.
- Fruits and vegetables are much better for oral health than cookies, candies, or even fruit drinks.
Did you know that good oral health begins before a baby is even born?
Gum disease during pregnancy can harm the mother’s health and may be linked to low birth weight in babies. Mothers can unintentionally pass cavity-causing bacteria to newborns. And children are three times as likely to have cavities if their mothers have high levels of untreated tooth decay.
During pregnancy, it’s important to:
- Make and keep regular dental appointments.
- Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least twice each day.
- Drink fluoridated tap water every day. (Learn more about fluoride below.)
- Talk to a dentist or doctor about ways to prevent or manage dental problems.
- If you have nausea or “morning sickness,” rinse your mouth with 1 teaspoon of baking soda mixed in a glass of water after you get sick. This will help wash stomach acid away and keep your tooth enamel safe.
It’s no surprise that most childhood cavities occur in the back teeth. Even with regular daily brushing, the back teeth can be hard to reach.
Dental sealants can be applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth to prevent cavities. Dental sealants are applied quickly, easily, and pain-free, and they prevent 80% of cavities. Many schools offer dental sealant programs for children. If your child’s school has a sealant program, sign your child up to participate. If they don’t, ask your child’s school to start one. Or ask your child’s dentist to apply sealants if it’s appropriate.
Fluoride: Good or Bad?
Fluoride is a mineral that naturally occurs in water and in many foods. Many communities adjust the amount of fluoride in their tap water to help prevent tooth decay. Here’s why:
- When you eat sugary foods, bacteria in your mouth produce acid that eats away at the hard surface of your teeth (the enamel and dentin). Teeth become weaker and more likely to develop cavities.
- Fluoride helps rebuild the surface of the tooth in three ways.
- It makes teeth strong and more resistant to acid.
- It can stop early tooth decay by putting hard minerals back into teeth.
- It interferes with bacteria’s ability to make acid.
- Children living in communities with fluoridated tap water have fewer cavities than children whose water is not fluoridated.
You can learn about the amount of fluoride in your community’s tap water. Visit My Water’s Fluoride.
To prevent cavities, there should be 0.7 milligrams of fluoride per liter of water.
Is there too little fluoride in your community’s water? Ask your dentist or doctor if your child should use fluoride supplements, such as tablets, lozenges, or drops taken orally.
Smiles are empowering. And they’re an important part of your child’s overall health. So, remember, to prevent cavities:
- Brush each day
- Limit sugar
- Fluoride in water and toothpaste can help.
- Visit your dentist regularly.
Call Community Health Net to schedule your child’s dental exam today! Call (814) 456-8548.
Our health information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Please be advised that this information is made available to assist the public in learning more about their health. Community Health Net providers may not see and/or treat all topics found herein.
American Academy of Pediatrics (2020, December 10). Oral Health Campaign Toolkit. Aap.org. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.aap.org/en/news-room/campaigns-and-toolkits/oral-health/
American Dental Association. Burger, D. (2022, October 19). 2023 National Children’s Dental Health Month approaching. ADA News. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/2022/october/2023-national-childrens-dental-health-month-approaching
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Children’s Dental Health. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/publications/features/childrens-dental-health.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022, April 6). Children’s Oral Health. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/basics/childrens-oral-health/index.html
Cleveland Clinic (2022, May 2). 22 Calcium-Rich Foods. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/calcium-rich-foods/.
Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start and Early Head Start (2022, November 16). Brush Up on Oral Health: Understanding How Fluoride Helps Prevent and Repair Tooth Decay. Retrieved January 22, 2023, from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/oral-health/brush-oral-health/understanding-how-fluoride-helps-prevent-repair-tooth-decay
National Institutes of Health. Guarnizo-Herreno, C. C., & Wehby, G. L. (2012, June 23). Children’s Dental Health, School Performance, and Psychosocial Well-Being. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22727866/.
World Health Organization (2017, November 9). Sugars and Dental Caries. Retrieved January 21, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sugars-and-dental-caries.