By: Sujatha Rajagopal
When you’re besotted with your son’s toothless grin, the last thing you’d want to see a year later are yellowing, or worse, decaying gnashes. We all know that a brilliant smile is one’s best asset, but how do you ensure that Junior has a darn good set to start with?
The teething process
Let’s begin by understanding how baby teeth grow. Although you may not see them now, your baby’s teeth began taking shape during your second trimester of pregnancy. Your baby has 20 primary teeth at birth, and some of these may already be fully developed at the jaw. Usually, babies’ teeth cut at six to 12 months, starting off with a lower front tooth. There’s nothing to worry about if it takes longer. There could be a genetic reason if you were a late teether yourself. However, you should inform your baby’s dentist if his first tooth hasn’t cut by 16 months.
After the first lower tooth shows, an upper front tooth follows, accompanied by more lower and upper teeth, and finally, the molars. By age three, your child will have 10 lower teeth and 10 upper teeth.
Caring for baby’s teeth is a long-term investment because everyone needs to be able to smile without eliciting gasps of horror. Remember that healthy milk teeth assist baby’s speech development, allow him to chew solid food and guide permanent teeth into place when your child reaches about six years of age. When milk teeth are damaged, they may cause improper growth of permanent teeth.
In fact, experts stress that care of milk teeth should start even before they appear, by running a clean, damp washcloth over baby’s gums after every mealtime to prevent bacteria build-up.
As soon as that first tooth appears, it’s time to get brushing:
- Use a toothbrush made especially for babies. It should have soft bristles. Or you may use clean gauze at first and get a toothbrush a little later.
- It may help to introduce the toothbrush, without toothpaste, to baby a few days before you start brushing. Let him hold it or brush his face or hair with it. Babies accept things quicker when they are familiar with them. Letting baby watch you brush your teeth will encourage him too.
- Start by positioning baby on your lap, with his back to you, so that you are both comfortable.
- Gently brush each tooth with a circular motion, as if lightly scrubbing, with the bristles aimed towards where tooth and gum meet.
- If you prefer to use toothpaste, choose a non-fluoride variety made especially for babies and toddlers. Baby will swallow most of it, so only use a pea-sized amount.
- Gently wipe the surface of the tongue as it harbours a lot of bacteria that can lead to tooth decay.
- Don’t worry if it gets messy. You will both soon relax and become more confident. But do have a clean towel on hand to wipe up those dribbles!
- Be sure to brush twice a day!
The fuss about fluoride
Fluoride is a naturally occurring element that makes teeth more resistant to tooth decay. Fluoridated water-supplies and fluoride toothpaste give us enough fluoride to make our teeth strong.
Too much fluoride can cause fluorosis or tooth discoloration when permanent teeth appear. As babies and most children less than two years of age are unable to spit, experts sometimes recommend using non-fluoride or low-fluoride toothpaste for this age group. However, if a child is very susceptible to tooth decay, your dentist may recommend having topical fluoride applications or fluoride supplements.
In any case, it is absolutely essential to ensure that you use no more than a pea-sized amount of toothpaste for a young child.
Preventing tooth decay and cavities
Cavities are caused by bacteria and food that remain on teeth after eating. If they are not brushed away, acid can accumulate on the tooth, soften the enamel, rapidly decay teeth and form a hole or cavity.
Tooth decay in babies usually begins when parents do not keep disciplined feeding and brushing habits. Dipping a pacifier in juice or honey or putting a baby to sleep with a bottle in his mouth can cause the sugars in these foods to remain in his mouth for hours and eat away at the enamel. The result is pocked and stained-looking front teeth — a condition also known as “bottle mouth”. When severe, a dentist may need to pull out all affected teeth, leaving your child toothless until his permanent teeth replace them.
The following pointers can help you prevent this:
- Never allow your child to go to bed with a bottle. It is harmful regardless of whether he sits up or lies down with it.
- Set specific drinking times such as at meal times and playtime, and do not allow your child to walk around with a bottle.
- Never use a bottle as a pacifier.
- Children are usually able to drink from a cup by age one, so do encourage him to use a cup as soon as possible.
- If he must use a bottle in bed, fill it with water instead.
- Avoid adding sugar to baby’s food. Choose foods rich in calcium, vitamins and minerals.
- Watch out for food labels that say ‘no added sugar’. This doesn’t mean they are sugar-free.
- Decay can also stem from prolonged use of antibiotics or sugary medicines. Brushing his teeth after giving him his medicine can help.
- Always brush your child’s teeth in the morning and before he sleeps.
Visiting a dentist
Seeing his dentist needn’t be a traumatic experience for a child if he is introduced to the process by his first birthday. This is also a recommendation by the American Dental Association because this will be the perfect time for your dentist to guide you through brushing and flossing techniques. These visits will also enable early detection of potential dental decay. Besides, by getting to know his dentist from a young age, your child will not be fearful for long.
It is best to choose a paediatric dentist, as he or she would be trained to treat little teeth and gums. Twice yearly visits are usually recommended to prevent problems and maintain excellent dental health. Be sure to consult your dentist in between visits if you have any doubts or if your child complains of pain.
Light up his smile!
Thanks to medical science, there is now a marvelous array of cosmetic dentistry services to repair damaged teeth. But why leave it till that happens? Your dentist’s role is only part of the equation. When parent and child work together at home, dental hygiene and health become as natural as… well, brushing teeth! So start investing in your child’s teeth now. He will thank you with an amazing smile.