Dental decay is the most common infectious disease currently experienced by Australian children. Dental decay is a preventable condition however, by the age of six, over half of all Australian children will have at least one decayed tooth. Infection and toothache caused by dental decay is presently the second most common cause of hospital admissions in Australian children.
Good dental habits developed from an early age are invaluable as they will stay with your child for life. A healthy diet with a wide variety of nutritious foods, as well as good home cleaning and regular dental visits will ensure a healthy mouth for your child.
The importance of children’s baby or “milk teeth” is often underestimated. Like adult teeth, baby teeth can develop decay which may progress to painful inflammation or infection (e.g.. an abscess) if left untreated. Dental treatment for baby teeth is similar to that used on adults, with the main difference being that the treatment only needs to be effective until the tooth falls out naturally. However, premature loss of baby teeth due to extraction can affect a child’s chewing, therefore impairing their ability to eat nutritiously and to thrive and grow. The loss of teeth can also affect the development of speech. A child may also become self-conscious with visible missing or decayed teeth, resulting in teasing and social problems. Baby teeth act as a template to guide the growth of the adult teeth. If prematurely lost because of decay, it may be a number of years before the adult teeth erupt (grow) into the space. The remaining baby teeth can tip and move into the space left by the missing teeth. This causes crowding or even trapping of the adult teeth underneath the gum and can necessitate orthodontic treatment (braces) or even surgical retrieval.
Diet is the biggest contributing factor to decay in children’s mouths. Sugars feed the bacteria found in our mouth, which produce acids that break down the tooth, causing decay. We know the dangers of treats such as lollies, soft drinks and chocolate and the importance of limiting these to special occasions. Muesli and fruit bars, juice, cordial as well as dried fruit are some other slightly less obvious high sugar foods that shouldn’t be everyday snack foods or lunchbox options. All foods and drinks containing sugars and acids can be harmful to teeth. This unfortunately includes some healthy alternatives that have ‘good sugars’ such as breads, milk and fruit. It is unrealistic to cut these out of a child’s diet altogether. Instead it is suggested to limit the frequency a child consumes such foods, by reducing snacking, and to encourage your children to drink plenty of plain water, especially after a sweet or acidic snack or drink. Teeth need two hours to recover from the acid attack that follows a meal, so if your child likes to snack, their mouth could constantly be vulnerable to decay. It is therefore essential that good dental hygiene is maintained at home. Below are some tips for keeping your child’s mouth clean and happy.
- Twice daily brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste and daily flossing to remove the harmful bacteria that cause decay
- Children should start to learn how to independently clean their teeth at 4-5 years of age. However, children do not develop the manual dexterity to effectively clean their own teeth properly until around the age of 8. Until this age brushing and flossing should be a team effort. We suggest letting your child brush first and then, afterwards, assist your child to clean his or her teeth.
- It may be easier to clean your child’s teeth while you’re seated with his or her head in your lap, similar to the position used when you sit in the dentist's chair
- Cleaning should be supervised until age 10
- Everyone needs to brush their teeth for 2 minutes, you can set a timer or play a song so your child knows how long it should take
- Consider using a battery-powered, vibrating toothbrush
Fluoride is found naturally in spring water and is now maintained in Queensland’s water supply at a safe recommended level. It is also in toothpastes and other dental products. Fluoride plays an important role in preventing decay by strengthening the hard outer enamel layer of both baby and adult teeth against acid attack. It can even reverse very small areas of decay thereby avoiding the need for a filling. Too much fluoride while the permanent adult teeth are developing can cause a white mottling of these teeth known as fluorosis. This usually occurs when a child swallows too much adult strength toothpaste over a long period of time. Most often the mottling is very mild and only an aesthetic concern. Below are some tips for avoiding fluorosis:
- Up to 18 months old, only use water when brushing no toothpaste
- From 18 months old to 5 years use child’s low-fluoride toothpaste and only a pea-sized amount
- Ensure your child spits out the excess toothpaste
- Some children love the taste of toothpaste so keep it out of reach