How to Encourage Better Dental Health For Your Child

An age-by-age guide to keeping your kid's teeth gleaming.


If your child is sporting a cavity or two, they’re not alone. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease, far surpassing other childhood ailments. It’s four times more common than childhood obesity, five times more common than asthma, and 20 times more common than diabetes.

Some children are especially prone to cavities. Research in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry shows that more than 70 percent of childhood cavities are found in 8 percent of children — possibly due to an overbalance of Streptococcus mutans bacteria in the mouth.

Whether your child is cavity-free or already familiar with fillings, you can help encourage better dental health, starting today.

Ages 0-5

Good Beginnings

The first teeth generally appear when a child is around 6 months of age, but parents can begin caring for baby teeth before they even appear. Use a clean, damp washcloth to clean off residual food and milk after feedings and before bed. This helps introduce the idea and sensations of tooth brushing, and helps keep the gums clean and healthy, says Dr. Kate Lambert, a dentist at Spangler, Rohlfing & Lambert Pediatric Dentistry in Winston-Salem and Kernersville.

“Babies and toddlers thrive on a fun, simple and regular routine,” she says. “It’s vital to brush before bed, since that removes all the plaque and food from the day, which could increase the risk of cavities during sleep,” she says. “I always talk to my families about making it part of the bedtime routine. Bath, book, bottle, brush and bed!”

Singing a song or reading a special book while brushing, like “Brush, Brush, Brush!” by Alicia Padron or “Sesame Street Ready Set Brush!” can also help littles who need some distraction to get the job done.

Ages 6-12

Brace Race

That first orthodontist visit — or even braces — may not be as far off as you think. Parents are often surprised to learn that an orthodontic consult is recommended around age 7, and some children are sporting brackets by age 8. Second grade isn’t too early for braces, says Dr. Kim K. McFarland, a dentist at Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Nebraska — particularly for children with overbites, cross-bites or other types of jaw misalignment.

Early orthodontic treatment is timed to correct these issues early in the child’s growth, so that a child’s dental arches and teeth will grow more symmetrically during the natural growth spurt that occurs around age 10. Early braces usually mean two sets of braces, the first between ages 8 and 10 and the second around age 12. Early brackets aren’t for everyone; braces necessitate excellent brushing habits and not every family wants to commit to two courses of orthodontic treatment. As an alternative to early braces, McFarland says, parents can ask about less invasive pediatric appliances to help guide growth during these formative elementary years.  

Ages 13-18

Clean Scene

The transition to independence can mean more cavities for teens, Lambert says. Over half of teens have had at least one cavity, and 13 percent have untreated decay. But because teens have their permanent teeth good dental hygiene is especially important. “Teenagers have an increased risk for cavities for a number of reasons, including less parental guidance when completing home care; braces, which can be more difficult to clean; and more independent diet choices, such as sodas and candy,” she notes.

Because teens also care about their attractiveness, a gentle reminder about the appeal of fresh breath may motivate more thorough, regular brushing and flossing. Explain how poor habits and sugary foods affect the teeth, Lambert recommends.

“Teens are smart,” she says, “so explaining how cavities form in detail can help motivate them to make better choices!”

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.

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