Make dental hygiene a family affair

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When you’re tempted to take shortcuts with your own dental hygiene, remember: The kids are watching. And they’re learning. So do it right.

If you’re like most adults, you regularly brush your teeth. But do you brush long enough? Often enough? And do you floss? Ask your children. They can probably tell you.

Children as young as one year old can learn to brush their teeth. They will need help, and their use of toothpaste should be closely monitored, so they don’t consume large quantities of it. Children should use minimal amounts of toothpaste. Because they do not know how to spit, they often end up swallowing the toothpaste. If the toothpaste contains fluoride, they may be getting too much on a daily basis through water, toothpaste and dental visits. Making proper tooth brushing and flossing a family affair is one way to teach sound dental hygiene.

The American Dental Association recommends that children start regular dental checkups at age one. That may be surprising, but it’s good advice. I provide dental care to hundreds of children and young adults a year, and I see the consequences of ignoring the basics of dental hygiene and dental care. Brushing, flossing and limiting sugary drinks and treats can go a long way toward healthy teeth and gums.

Parents are the most important link to good dental and health habits. For example, some parents think of “baby” teeth as disposable. “They’re going to fall out anyway,” some parents and grandparents tell me, when I emphasize that children be taught to brush and floss their primary teeth. There are two problems with this rationale. First, decayed and diseased teeth at any age are uncomfortable, unsightly and can create health problems. Tooth decay, gum disease and tooth loss can affect their eating, their speech and their self-esteem. Second, children learn lifelong habits early. If they are taught to ignore their dental health as young children, it is likely they will ignore their dental health as adults.

Toddlers with decayed teeth may be going to sleep with a baby bottle in their mouths. “Bottle mouth” is a painful condition in young children that is entirely preventable. Never let a child fall asleep with a bottle in his mouth. The liquid from the bottle pools in the mouth, creating a perfect environment for bacteria and decay while the child sleeps.

In the Latino community, many of our children enjoy sucking on lemons and limes, sometimes with salt. This practice may sound healthy to parents who are discouraging sweets – after all, lemons and limes are fruits! But when children frequently suck on these acidic fruits, the protective enamel of their teeth can be eroded, exposing the fragile dentin underneath, and making them vulnerable to decay. Certain candies can cause the same problem and should be avoided or consumed in very limited quantities.

Sticky, sweet foods such as hard candy and caramel can cling to the teeth, providing an ideal environment for decay for hours, unless brushed and flossed away. Sodas and other sugary drinks create the same problem. Encourage your children to drink water rather than soda or other sweetened drinks. Again, model the behavior you want them to adopt. Make a point of brushing and flossing after eating. When you’re choosing treats and drinks for yourself and your family, choose wisely. Instead of a soda, prepare yourself a tall glass of iced water and share it with your child.

Good dental hygiene habits are even more important to children wearing braces. Keeping teeth and gums clean when braces are in place can be a challenge to even the most motivated youngster. It is complicated further by the fact that orthodontic treatment often starts in the young teen years, when children are learning to be more independent and resisting parental input. If your child has braces, step up your vigilance about oral hygiene. Enlist the help of your child’s orthodontist, dentist and dental hygienist to emphasize the importance of keeping teeth and gums clean. Beautifully straight teeth marred by staining or decay aren’t any fun.

Routine dental check-ups and cleanings are important to maintaining healthy teeth and gums in children and adults alike. Volunteer dentists and dental hygienists from all over the Valley share their time and expertise at Desert Mission Children’s Dental Clinic, 9201 N. 5th St. in Phoenix, providing dental care to children ages 4 until their 21st birthdays. Eligibility varies, and can be established through an appointment with the enrollment coordinator there. The clinic also accepts some state insurance plans. For more information about the Desert Mission Children’s Dental Clinic, visit or call 602-870-6363.

Ju Lawrence, DMD, is director of the Desert Mission Children’s Dental Clinic at 9201 N. 5th St. 602-870-6363.

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