A lot of people think that there’s no point in taking their child to the dentist before the child’s teeth have erupted.
In reality, that can sometimes be too late, as a new study in JAMA Network Open reminds.
Nearly 500 mothers took part. One group received dental care and guidance during pregnancy, with their children receiving care at 6, 12, and 18 months. For the other group, the intervention began at age 2 and continued to age 3.
Kids in the early intervention group developed less decay than those who received care later.
Bottom line? It pays to start early – before birth, as we’ve noted before, and then no later than your child’s first birthday or when the first tooth erupts, whichever happens first.
Why so early? For one, it’s an opportunity to assess your child’s oral and facial development – to make sure that the jaws, teeth, and other structures are growing properly. It’s also a chance to evaluate their risk of caries (decay) and discuss practical things you can do to minimize that risk. (Yes, research has shown that bacteria associated with decay can be present in the mouths of babies with no teeth.)
It also helps to get your child comfortable with the concept of going to the dentist – not to mention all the sights and sounds that may seem strange or even scary to them at first. Getting acclimated early typically makes future visits go much more smoothly.
Of course, there’s much you can do at home to help your child develop strong and healthy teeth:
- Before your child’s teeth come in, use a damp infant washcloth or clean gauze to gently clean their gums after feeding.
- When the teeth begin to erupt, offer them a chilled teething ring or gently massage their gums to help alleviate the pain. Avoid using benzocaine teething gels, as they can ultimately damage the gums or trigger a condition called methemoglobinemia, in which blood oxygen levels are drastically reduced. You can read more about natural options for addressing teething pain here.
- Once the teeth have begun to erupt, brush them regularly with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush using just a smear of fluoride-free, SLS-free toothpaste. Once they turn 2, you can usually start teaching them how to brush on their own.
- Once you notice any two of your child’s teeth touching each other, floss their teeth regularly. They should be able to start learning to floss on their own by the age of 6.
- If you let your child sleep with a bottle, fill it only with unfluoridated water.
- Limit how much sugar your child eats.
If you notice your child mouth-breathing, thumb-sucking, cheek-chewing, or engaging in other such habits (known as “parafunctional habits”), ask your dentist for guidance in addressing these issues. They can ultimately cause problems with their tooth alignment and bite, as well as orofacial development, which can have long-term consequences on health and wellness. The earlier they’re addressed, the better.
Work to develop good oral hygiene habits with your child. Set a regular morning and bedtime routine. Consider using a timer of some sort to ensure that your child is brushing long enough (2 minutes total, or 30 seconds per quadrant).
You can also reward good oral hygiene habits. Create a chart where you child can track regular brushing and offer meaningful rewards for reaching certain milestones.
Preventive care can never begin too early.
Images by Chrisbwah & Abigail Batchelder