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ITV American Academy of Pediatrics Discovery Health Channel

A Guide to Children's Dental Health

The road to a bright smile begins long before the first tooth breaks through the gum. Parents play a big part in helping their children develop healthy teeth. Early monitoring by a doctor is important. Regular care by a dental professional, getting enough fluoride, and eating right are all steps to good dental health. By following these steps and teaching them to your children, you can help your children grow up to have healthy teeth and winning smiles.

When should I start cleaning my child's teeth?
Daily dental cleaning should start as soon as your infant's first tooth appears. Wipe the teeth with a piece of gauze or a damp cloth. Switch to a toothbrush with a fluoride toothpaste as the child gets older. Fluoride in toothpaste absorbs into the tooth enamel and helps prevent tooth decay. Because children tend to swallow toothpaste, put only a small (pea-sized) amount of fluoride toothpaste on your child's toothbrush. Ingesting too much fluoride while brushing can result in bright white tooth staining (mottling). Also check the teeth for early signs of decay. These appear as white, yellow or brown spots on the teeth. Some children may develop decay in spite of the best preventive efforts. This may be because it runs in their family. Genetic influence also plays a role in a person's overall dental health.

Does thumb sucking hurt teeth?
Thumb sucking is normal in infants and young children and should cause no permanent problems if not continued past the age of 5. Likewise, it is harmless for infants to use pacifiers. Children who suck their thumbs past the age of 5 may need a referral to a pediatric dentist to determine if problems are developing.

Are there eating habits that are bad for a child's teeth?
Sweets like candy or cookies can lead to tooth decay. Starchy foods, such as crackers, and sticky foods, such as raisins, tend to stay on the teeth long. These foods also are more likely to lead to tooth decay. Sugar from fruits and fruit juices left on the teeth for long periods of time is also not healthy for teeth. Starches and fruits, however, are a necessary part of any child's diet. To avoid tooth decay, give children these foods only at mealtime (before the teeth have been brushed), not at bedtime. For healthy teeth, offer children a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods.

When should children be seen by a dentist?
Before the age of 3, your child's basic dental care can be handled by your pediatrician. During regular well-child visits, your pediatrician will check your child's teeth and gums to make sure they are healthy. However, if dental problems do arise, your pediatrician may refer your child to a dental professional. A pediatric dentist (pedodontist) specializes in the care of children's teeth, but some general dentists are interested in treating children's dental needs and will also see children. Situations in which a pediatrician may wish to refer a child to a dental professional before age 3 include:

  • If the child chips or injures a tooth or has an injury to the face or mouth.
  • If the teeth show any signs of discoloration. This could be a sign of tooth decay.
  • If a tooth is painful or is sensitive to hot or cold foods or liquids. This could also be a sign of decay.

Most mouth pain in children is not dental in origin. It could be a sign of infection. A pediatrician can rule out medical conditions that are not related to a child's dental health.

Children should get regular dental checkups after age 3 or when all 20 baby teeth have come in. Parents might prefer to take their children to a pediatric dentist for these regular checkups. As previously noted, some children may need earlier visits to the dentist.

Regular dental checkups, a balanced diet, fluoride, injury prevention and brushing are all important for healthy teeth. Starting children off with good dental habits now will help them g


Q: What percentage of lead poisoning cases are caused by lead pencils?

A: Zero. Although they're called "lead pencils" they're made of graphite, so you never have to worry about lead poisoning from a pencil.

Discovery Health Channel Medem American Academy of Pediatrics The Nemours Foundation