It may come as a surprise to some that baby teeth are very important in the life of a child. Good oral practices in the first few years of life set the foundation for a lifetime of optimal oral health.
Children who develop tooth decay in their first five years are more likely to continue to develop cavities throughout childhood and adolescence. Decay in the primary teeth of children younger than six years of age is commonly referred to as "early childhood caries."
Naturally, there is a difference between a child who develops a single cavity at five years and a child who develops severe tooth decay involving multiple teeth as a toddler.
A 2013 report from the Canadian Institute of Health Information reveals dental surgery performed in hospital under general anesthesia to treat early childhood caries is the most common day surgery in Canada. In 2013, more than 2,500 children underwent this procedure in Manitoba hospitals.
Severe tooth decay also affects childhood health and well-being. Childhood quality of life can be affected and can include altered eating and sleeping behaviours. New evidence from our research group in Manitoba reveals children with severe forms of tooth decay are more likely to suffer from nutritional problems, including deficiencies in iron and vitamin D, than their cavity-free peers.
Early childhood caries is largely preventable. For decay to occur teeth need to be exposed to dental plaque containing bacteria and sugars. The greater the amount and more frequent the intake, the greater the risk.
Of course, a key factor in dental health is access to care. The Canadian Dental Association recommends children receive their first dental exam within six months of the first tooth appearing and no later than 12 months of age. The Manitoba Dental Association launched its Free First Visit program in 2010 to promote the importance of early first dental visits. This preventive approach to pediatric dental health may help to ensure children have healthy mouths.
Here are some tips to keep your child's oral health on track:
-- Caring for baby teeth begins before your baby arrives. A good prenatal diet and good dental care for mom and parents are important. Vitamin D and calcium are essential building blocks for strong teeth. Regular dental care for parents may reduce the transmission of cavity-causing bacteria to your child.
-- Breastfeed. Not only is it natural, it is also lowers the risk of decay. For those choosing to bottle-feed, limit bottles to feeding times only and wean your child from the bottle by 14 to 18 months.
-- Avoid bottles at bedtime. While milk and juice appear healthy they contain sugars, which can lead to cavities. Only plain water is safe in the bedtime bottle.
-- Begin cleaning your child's mouth with a soft cloth before teeth arrive. Once teeth erupt, begin with a smear of toothpaste the size of a grain of rice. Once your child turns three, use a green pea size of toothpaste. Most children need assistance with brushing until age eight.
-- Celebrate your child's first birthday with a trip to the dentist. That first visit should occur by 12 months of age.
-- Give your child dental-friendly snacks like fruit, vegetables and cheese. Vitamin D rich foods and supplements may also help prevent cavities.
-- Limit the number of between-meal snacks and drinks containing sugar.
Dr. Robert Schroth is an associate professor and clinician scientist at the University of Manitoba. He also maintains a part-time clinical practice at Mount Carmel Clinic and Access Downtown.