Three-year-old Taylor is a little nervous. This is her first trip to the dentist. The office staff can tell, and a dental assistant calms her by cooing, “tickle, tickle, tickle! Are you going to let us tickle your teeth like that?” Taylor smiles back, and that’s when her mother Courtney Jones knows she is going to be OK.
“This was her first time so even I was a little nervous, but she did good,” says Jones, who can definitely claim some of the credit for her daughter’s relaxed attitude. “We watched some YouTube videos before we came in, videos of little kids going to the dentist and having their teeth brushed.”
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentists recommends that children make their first visit to the dentist at age 1. Dr. Harry Bopp with Dentistry for Children in Lakeland says that first visit is an important stage in a child’s oral health.
“That’s when the first couple of teeth are in,” Bopp says. “There’s not a problem with most of these children, no decay problems as such, but if we can get them on the right track with what they’re eating and how they’re having their teeth cleaned, we can prevent future cavities.”
To relax little children, pediatric dentists often set up a movie room in their offices where children can watch animated movies and shows while they wait. Bopp’s Lakeland office has a movie room and video game room that also keep siblings occupied. Bopp explains that the goal is to make children want to come back, because unfortunately, tooth decay is on the rise.
“Children today eat a lot of sweets,” Bopp says. “The sweet, sticky candies and the sodas are the culprits for the dental decay. The cavities can grow into the tooth. It [the tooth] gets sensitive to hot and cold fluids and then it just starts hurting on its own. The little face can get all swollen because of infections and there have been some real tragedies from dental decay in children when it’s not taken care of.”
So what are the main culprits? At the top of the list: taking a bottle to bed in the first year or two of life, says Bopp. Also to blame are milk soaking into the teeth; sippy cups filled with soda, juice or flavored drinks; treats like gummy bears, sticky candies and chewing gum; and breakfast cereal. Pediatric dentists ask parents to read the cereal ingredients.
“I think that’s the thing that surprises parents,” Bopp says. “You think you are giving them a healthy breakfast, but if you look at the ingredients there’s a lot of sugar in it.”
Rounding out the top five culprits of tooth decay is the children themselves. Experts nationwide say children are not brushing their teeth well or often enough. Standard guidelines are for kids to brush at least twice a day. Children younger than 6 or 7 should still get help brushing from parents and other adults. Semi-annual checkups with fluoride and sealant, when needed, is also a plus for healthy teeth.
Bopp hears from many parents who wonder how serious a cavity on a baby tooth can be when the baby tooth will eventually be replaced by a permanent one.
“The truth is, yes, [the back teeth] come out at 10 or 11 years old and the front teeth come out at 6 or 7 years old, but a lot of bad things can happen between coming in at age one and those teeth coming out at age eleven,” Bopp warns. “A cavity can go from nothing to something in six months. We can do something to repair that, but after six months it can become a big hole and that becomes a big problem.”
A time line from experts for moms and dads suggests that children should be off the bottle by their first birthday and definitely should not drink from the bottle in bed, where the milk can pool in the back of the mouth while your child is laying down. By age 3, experts recommend you wean your child off the pacifier. And by age 4 – 5, experts warn against continued thumb-sucking.
“It will cause the anterior teeth to protrude out,” explains Bopp.
And until your child is approximately 7 or 8 years old, an adult should help him or her brush their teeth to make sure they are brushing correctly.
Linda Hurtado is an ABC Action News anchor and health reporter.