What Dentists Want Parents to Do

Adults can help promote good dental health among children

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

In a sense, dentists treating children see two patients with each visit: the child and the accompanying parent. 

While the dentists treat the child, the parent receives dental education to improve home care. Children should begin seeing the dentist by 1 year of age. Although it seems too early to many parents, it is important so that dentist can detect oral problems early, help children feel comfortable visiting the dentist, and establish good home care with parents.

“One of the things that drives me crazy that I see in the store is baby bottles covered with 7-Up or Pepsi,” said Matthew Hall, dentist and general practice residency program director at the Department of Medical Education at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center. 

Whether or not the bottle contains soft drinks—and they shouldn’t—using bottles adorned with soft drink brands normalizes their consumption to children. Children should drink only water from bottles or sippy cups between meals.

“One of the biggest disappointments is when we have a child here at 18 months or 2 years and they have cavities on all their baby teeth,” Hall said. “It’s too late once they have bottle rot, also known as early childhood caries.”

Drinking milk or juice should be limited to mealtimes.

What and when children eat is also important to note.

“Start children early on to limit sweets and judiciously hand out things that could harm teeth,” Halls said. “Limit it to mealtime.”

Fruit Roll-Ups are a common offender, as the popular children’s snack is sticky and loaded with sugar that feeds tooth-rotting bacteria. Hall would also like to see parents stop the practice of children noshing on snacks for extended periods. Instead of allowing all-day Goldfish snacking from the package, parents should offer one portion for five minutes. If it is not finished, the remainder of the portion should be taken away.

For children who frequently claim they are hungry, parents should remain strict about eating times. Many times, it is just boredom or thirst instead of hunger.

It takes about 30 minutes for saliva to reduce the acid in the mouth.

Hall wants parents to set a better example of good oral care at home.

“If they see that you’re taking care of your teeth, they will want to,” Hall said. “Infants absorb everything around them. They are always watching and listening. If they see the parents are diligent about taking care of them, they will also do this. You will need to help them when they are small.”

This should include brushing at least twice daily: after breakfast and before bed.

Brushing after lunch is good as well. However, most children are not able to do so at school. Rinsing the mouth with water can help reduce the bacteria load after lunch.

How children get cavities often surprises parents.

“Most people are shocked to find out that if they have cavities, they can transmit them to their children,” Hall said. “If a mom or dad has active decay, kissing the baby can transmit that disease into the baby’s mouth so the baby can be affected by decay. The kid who drops a pacifier on the ground and the parent licks it off. Guess what? You transmitted germs that cause cavities into your baby’s mouth. The bacteria that cause decay can be transmitted to anyone else.”

Not every patient consistently complies with brushing guidelines.

“Often, even with adults, sometimes they brush more in the morning but often forget at night,” said Lindsey Behrman, dentist and pediatric dental attending at Pluta Dental Center in Rochester. “That’s super important because you want to make sure all the food that’s been on your teeth all day is off your teeth. It’s an all-you-can eat buffet for the bacteria. You usually have less saliva at night.”

Parents should help their children brush until age 7 or when their manual dexterity is sufficient to do a good job. Otherwise, Behrman said that it is easy for children to miss spots.

She also encourages brushing the tongue.

“We have papillae,” she said. “It’s like a carpet for food and plaque to accumulate. After you brush the teeth, brush the tongue.”

One aspect of home care that many parents overlook is flossing. Stuffing large hands into tiny mouths is challenging. Floss picks may make it easier.

Behrman also reminds many parents to have their children wear a mouthguard for sports beyond just football and lacrosse. A collision with other players, equipment like the net or ball, or falling during play can endanger teeth.

“Get a fitted mouthguard, not a floppy one that moves in the mouth,” Behrman said. “If they have a very deep bite or their top teeth are farther out than the bottom ones, they’re more at risk for a dental issue.”