Keeping Those Little Teeth Healthy

Following up on last week’s theme of keeping your parenting fun, let’s talk about a topic that is not inherently fun: Children’s oral health. Yup, you are in charge of helping your children to grow strong teeth with a healthy diet and maintain those strong teeth with good dental hygiene. Genetics certainly plays a strong role, but there is so much you as a parent do to set your kids up with a healthy mouth that will benefit them for decades, maybe even a century, hereafter. If you have ever had a cavity, you know that a) they can be painful, b) they require some unpleasant treatment, and c) they require a lifetime of dental follow-up because filling materials degrade and need to be replaced, each time having the risk of losing more of the original tooth and inching you closer to all of those awful words like dentures, bridges, crowns – all those scary dental issues I am so glad I have never had to deal with and will do anything I can to keep my kids from encountering them.

First, the basics….When should you start taking care of your child’s teeth? As soon as they’re born. Yup, get one of those little rubbery thoothbrushes that cover your own finger and start gently brushing their gums twice a day even before they have teeth. Keep up that habit with a regular child-sized toothbrush and a teeny dab of children’s toothpaste once they have a few teeth and a big enough mouth. Flossing should technically begin as soon as the first tooth is in but cut yourself some slack if your baby is closer to 1 before you really get info flossing. I highly recommend the stick flosses that come prepped with about a ½ inch piece of taught floss with a plastic handle. Even with my big kids, I find those to be much easier than wrapping the floss around my fingers and trying to fit in those little mouths.

Second, when to see the dentist? That answer will vary by child depending on their comfort level with strangers and new settings, ability to sit still, etc. It’s better to wait a little and increase the likelihood of a positive first encounter with the dentist than rush it, assuming there are no dental concerns. My kids have all had their first dentist appointment between the ages of 2 and 3. Having older siblings definitely helps to get them prepped so they have a visual of what the appointment will be like before it’s their turn. There are fun apps to help with that as well; we used to have one called Ed The Dentist. Choosing a kid-friendly dentist is very helpful. The kids get to watch cartoons at our dentist’s office, which they love, and there are some toys in the waiting room to keep them content before their appointment.

Third, how do you keep dental hygiene fun? This can be anything from colorful toothbrushes to flavored toothpaste to superheroes flying into their mouth to save their teeth from evil decay (get creative and keep it upbeat). Several years ago, I decided I needed a pneumonic to help the kids remember to brush each section of their teeth every time they brush, and I knew that if I could come up with something fun, they would be more likely to use my technique. Inspiration hit one day with a song loosely to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. It goes like this:

 

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Left, Center, Right and Slide Back

Molars, Molars, Molars, Molars

And Tongue

 

Which loosely correlates with:

 

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

Down Stream

 

It’s a bit of a stretch, but try to find a little rhythm as you brush your children’s teeth tonight. The first 4 lines refer to the front side of the lower teeth, back side of the lower teeth, front side of the upper teeth, and back side of the upper teeth, always sliding back across the biting surface of the teeth. The molars line hits all 4 quadrants of molars and should be sung with a fun crescendo, getting louder and more dramatic as you move from the first to fourth molar. You have to sing/hum the song very slowly to have time to brush each tooth along the way. If this rendition isn’t quite working for you, see if you can come up with another fun pneumonic, whether it’s a song or story or a counting game – anything that makes it more fun and easy to be sure your kids are brushing all their teeth.

Fourth, when and how do you guide your children to independence in their dental care? Thank goodness, my kids have yet to have a cavity, but we did have a little scare when my oldest was 7 and the dental hygienist said he had a spot of tartar (a build up of plaque) in the upper-right corner of his mouth. I have since learned that this is a really easy spot for parents to miss when brushing their children’s teeth because it’s a tricky angle for those of us who stand on the right side of their child at the sink, and you really have to get your kids not open their mouths quite so wide to be able to sneak the toothbrush between those teeth and their cheek. But I digress, in this case I was so worried I had let my son down because in the months prior to that check-up, he had started brushing his own teeth much of the time. He had developed a good routine of going potty and brushing his own teeth before bed, and with 3 younger kids to be helping, my husband and I praised him for that and encouraged him to continue. The hygienist shared with me that she brushed her own children’s teeth until they were 12 years old. At first that seemed extremely late, but given the long-term impact of good dental hygiene, we have resumed brushing and flossing all of our children’s teeth each evening; the big kids brush their own teeth in the morning. There are plenty of other domains in which they can grow their independence in the meantime – cooking, laundry, schoolwork, etc.

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