Dental care for babies and children is a little different than your typical adult routine, but protecting their oral health is just as important.
Because kids will be kids, there are a few pediatric dental problems you’re likely to see as your little one grows.
Cavities—Even baby teeth can get cavities. Much of what we feed babies is sugary — baby formula, juice, even milk. “If you’re putting them to sleep with a bottle, it can definitely lead to cavities,” says Austin Dentist Samantha Hollinger, DMD. “As they start to eat solid food, it’s often sticky and sugary, like crackers and cereals. Even peanut butter has sugar.”
Baby teeth will eventually fall out on their own, but cavities should be treated (and avoided), anyway. Aside from causing pain, tooth decay can lead to premature tooth loss, infection can spread through the blood, and it can even become deadly.
“Baby teeth have a very important function, besides chewing: they are place holders for the permanent teeth,” says Dr. Hollinger. “If a baby tooth is lost early, you may see loss of space in the jaw for the permanent tooth to come in, causing misalignment and other issues.”
Dr. Hollinger’s recommendations:
Avoid sugary drinks and snacks. Sugars create an acid that wears away the tooth’s enamel. Instead, encourage kids to eat raw carrots, celery, and crunchy fruits. They actually help keep teeth cleaner.
Start early building good habits. Even before teeth erupt, clean your baby’s gums twice a day with a soft, clean cloth. As teeth come in, start brushing twice a day with a soft brush. When your child is learning to brush their own teeth, let them brush once a day under your supervision and then do the second brushing yourself.
“Kids get bored fast and want to be done after just a few brushes,” notes Dr. Hollinger. “One way to get them brushing longer is to have them brush to their favorite song, from start to finish, and make it kind of a fun routine.”
Trauma—Kids have a lot of energy, love to play rough, and are still developing their motor skills while learning how to navigate the world, so, accidents happen. And sometimes those accidents involve injury to the teeth and mouth.
One of the amazing things about teeth that we tend to forget is that they’re a living system. Because of that, you can actually save a tooth that’s been knocked out. Often you can put the tooth back in place and it will reattach on its own.
So, Dr. Hollinger recommends:
Use a mouth guard for sports. Prevention is always the best goal.
Balanced salt solution. Keep a balanced salt solution like Hank’s on hand; even pack some along when your child is out playing sports. If by chance your child has a sport injury and their tooth gets knocked out, the solution of inorganic salts supplemented with glucose can be used to rinse the tooth and mouth to keep the tissues and ligaments healthy. Keep the tooth in the solution and take your child to see your dentist as soon as possible.
“It’s really helpful to have this solution to keep the tooth viable while you get in to see the dentist,” says Dr. Hollinger. “If the tooth dies, you’re looking at an implant or other intervention at an early age.”
Gum Disease—It can happen in kids, too. Gum disease is a serious bacterial infection that results from a buildup of harmful bacteria. It can destroy the gums and the supporting structures of the teeth. The first sign of gum disease in kids may be bad breath. Bleeding, redness, or swelling of the gums are also signs of gum disease.
Dr. Hollinger recommends:
A visit to your dentist. (You should start regular dentist visits when your baby’s first teeth start coming in). Your dentist can evaluate the severity of the gum disease, do a deeper cleaning, and use stronger fluoride products than you can get on your own.
“Flossing shouldn’t be necessary for children, because their teeth usually don’t touch,” notes Dr. Hollinger. “But if you do see teeth that are touching, you should start helping your child floss between them.”
Thumb sucking and pacifier use—Your baby’s natural inclination to self-comfort by sucking on a thumb or pacifier is perfectly fine until their teeth are in. After their teeth come in, sucking on a thumb or pacifier can affect the alignment, their ability to chew, and other functionality.
Dr. Hollinger recommends:
Wean toddlers from pacifiers by cutting a hole in them (reducing the suction), “losing” them, or encouraging your child to give them away to another baby, perhaps as a form of “graduation.”
Thumb sucking is more difficult to discourage. “We don’t want parents creating a problem of low self-esteem while trying to stop their children from thumb sucking,” says Dr. Hollinger.
Try to keep little hands busy to keep them out of the mouth. Reward with praise, stickers, or other small, non-food items. Check in after your child has drifted to sleep and gently move their hand away from their face.