Children’s teeth are a tricky business. Their basic acquisition involves lots of tears, drool and sleepless nights – then you have to deal with their maintenance. Trying to coax a small child into brushing their teeth often involves a fretful stand-off in the bathroom. Every. Single. Day.
But it doesn’t have to be this way according to Dr Guilia D’Anna, a dentist and dermal therapist with two children of her own. This is her bite-sized guide to make looking after your kids’ teeth less of an ordeal.
TFH: So at what age should parents start brushing their children’s teeth?
Dr Guilia: As soon as possible, mainly because decay happens whenever food sits in the same position for a period of time. But I will say that I don’t think that any parents should use fluoride toothpaste until their child can reliably spit out. That’s because we already have fluoride in the water, and there’s no need to have that additional fluoride when it’s just being swallowed.
TFH: OK, my two-year-old can’t spit out properly yet. Is there really a danger in having too much fluoride?
Dr Guilia: Yeah. The main concern is when enamel is forming – and I’m talking about in the adult teeth that are forming underneath the gum from about one-and-a-half years onwards. When too much fluoride is ingested, it actually interrupts the way enamel is formed. Sometimes you’ll get white or brown spots that are permanent within the enamel and that’s called fluorosis. It’s basically where the fluoride stops the cells from forming correctly in the enamel. It becomes a bit of a cosmetic nightmare and, in extreme cases, the enamel is less mineralized or hard. The means the tooth will be less resistant to decay.
TFH: So if you’re not using fluoride toothpaste, what do you recommend? Infant toothpaste?
Dr Guilia: Even that has fluoride in it. The main take-home message is put a tiny smear on the toothbrush, not a big dollop. Alternatively, there is a product called Tooth Mousse. There’s two versions of it, but you pick the one that doesn’t have fluoride because that’s quite safe if it’s swallowed, and it does really good things for teeth in a preventive way as well. Plus, it tastes nice.
TFH: So smear don’t dollop. But beyond that, how should you actually go about cleaning a toddler’s teeth?
Dr Guilia: Well, I guess the main thing is don’t stress too much if you can’t do it properly. Obviously, we’re all fighting our own battles. Probably, the most important thing for young kids – and when I say young, I mean under the age of three – is actually diet. So don’t feed your child, say, sultanas just before going to bed because that’s sticky sugar and it hangs around in their teeth for a long time.
TFH: Any other foods to avoid before bed?
Dr Guilia: Basically anything that’s got sticky sugar or prolonged sugar. So for instance, if you’re picking between chocolate and lollies, pick the chocolate. It does have sugar in it, but it’s something that melts and disappears, whereas lollies especially things like Red Skins and Minties tend to stick to teeth.
The other one to avoid is fruit juice. Fruit juice is loaded with sugar, but it’s also got acid in it. If you’re giving your child something to drink just before bed then plain water is definitely still the king, because otherwise if you’re not able to brush teeth well, whatever you last gave him is sitting in their mouth all night.
TFH: We used to give my son some milk when he’d wake up in the night, but the sleep-school people told us that was a no-go for dental reasons. What’s the problem with milk?
Dr Guilia: Milk does have sugar in it, which is basically lactose. The problem is really that bacteria in the mouth can convert sugar into acid, and acid causes a hole in the tooth. But at the end of the day we do have to try and relax a bit too, because we’re all trying to do the right thing. If you’re really concerned and a toothbrush is impossible to get into the mouth of really, really young kids, then just get a clean washcloth and rub it on their teeth to remove the plaque.
TFH: Any other tips to make teethbrushing time less of a drama?
Dr Guilia: Try to make it fun. Some electric toothbrushes designed for kids have fun apps where you sing-a-long to a song, and by the time the song’s done toothbrushing time should be over as well.
My daughter actually used to give me a really hard time with brushing her teeth. I would literally lay her down so her head was in my lap. I’d give her something to hold in each hand, and that would sort of distract her while I was actually able to use the toothbrush. Using Tooth Mousse, which has a really nice flavor, helps a lot.
TFH: But if baby teeth are just temporary placeholders for the adult variety, how important are they really for long-term dental health?
Dr Guilia: Look after your kids’ teeth, because even though they don’t seem important, their baby teeth will develop their habits for later. If you brush your teeth well as a youngster, you’re probably going to continue that on into adulthood. Dentists really don’t want kids to lose their teeth any earlier than they have to. I don’t want to have to say remove a tooth because of decay, because that tooth’s really important in holding the position open for the developing tooth underneath.