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Healthy Smile, Healthy Child

Most of us understand the importance of caring for our children’s teeth. We teach our kids how to brush properly and make sure they remember to floss. However, despite our best efforts, tooth decay remains a problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease. In fact, it is five times more common than asthma. More than one-third of children ages five to eleven have had a filling or other dental restorative work done and one in five have untreated cavities.

While teaching our children how to brush and limiting sugars and starches are important, there are other ways to protect your child’s teeth that you may be unaware of. Here are some examples:

Start early.

It’s never too early to care for your child’s teeth. Tooth decay starts with the first tooth, so prevention is key. Clean your baby’s mouth by wiping gums with a moist gauze pad or washcloth. When your baby’s teeth start to come in, brush them gently with a child-sized toothbrush. The American Dental Association recommends using a smear of fluoride toothpaste (or an amount about the size of a grain of rice) for children younger than three years old and a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste for children three to six years old. At age three or four, your child should be able to learn to brush his or her teeth with your help. At age six or seven, your child should be able to brush his or her own teeth twice a day (with supervision).

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only a little more than half of U.S. children ages two to four visit the dentist at least once a year. Children should see a dentist by their first birthday or within six months after the first teeth appear. Taking your children to a dentist early in their lives will help them become comfortable with the experience.

Lead by example.

Kids learn behaviors from their parents. One of the best things you can do for your child’s teeth is care for your own.

A new Cigna survey found that four out of five parents with dental insurance who didn’t go to the dentist themselves still took their children to see the dentist at least once during the year. It’s important for parents and guardians to lead by example. Otherwise, as children become adults they too might begin skipping dental exams. Among infrequent users of dental preventive care, self-reported oral health declines significantly with age. That’s why kids should develop good habits while they’re young.

Don’t ditch breakfast.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s also important for your child’s teeth. Eating a healthy breakfast keeps your child from snacking on sugary foods, which can help reduce the risk of tooth decay. Don’t have time for breakfast? Plan ahead. Prepare your child’s breakfast the night before so that he or she can eat first thing in the morning. There are also plenty of grab-and-go options like yogurt or fruit. Make sure your child’s breakfast is packed with protein and vitamins the essential ingredients for a healthy mouth!

Make brushing fun.

If you’re having trouble getting your child to brush his or her teeth, think of ways to make it fun. Hum or play their favorite song or make silly faces. Some kids also respond well to a timer so they can see how much time they have left to brush (two minutes is recommended). Don’t forget to floss!

Let your child pick out his or her toothbrush and toothpaste. Many toothbrushes have bright colors that appeal to young children. Check with your dentist to see which toothbrushes and toothpastes are best. Kids are more likely to brush if they feel part of the process!

Encourage dental care at school.

Oral hygiene shouldn’t be limited to the home. Encourage your kids to care for their teeth when they’re at school too. Pay attention to the snacks in your child’s lunchbox. Pack fruits and veggies like baby carrots or apples. These can help clean your child’s teeth and satisfy cravings for sugary snacks. Eliminate sodas as much as possible. If your children do have soft drinks, encourage the use of a straw and remind them to rinse with water afterwards.

Don’t forget to explain to your kids why it’s important to take good care of their teeth. Offer rewards or incentives when they remember to brush their teeth. The rewards can be simple – a family outing or a trip to the library. By instilling good dental hygiene habits in your kids early on, you’re setting the foundation for a lifetime of healthy teeth.

Miles Hall, DDS, is chief clinical director for Cigna Dental Health Inc. In this role, he helps develop strategic clinical policy and is involved with medical/dental integration efforts. He has worked in the dental industry for more than 30 years, including private practice. Dr. Hall is currently a member of the American Dental Association, American Association of Dental Consultants and the National Association of Dental Plans’ PRC Clinical Workgroup.

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