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Looking after your child's teeth

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Advice on cleaning your child's teeth and when to visit the dentist

Dental decay is one of the most common childhood diseases, with over 40% of children in the UK showing signs of tooth decay by the age of five years. No one wants their child to suffer toothache or have to undergo tooth extraction so doing everything possible to prevent tooth decay is important.

How teeth develop

Tooth development varies from child to child, but most babies start teething at between four and six months, and by the age of two-and-a-half all 20 first teeth will usually have appeared. Although the rate that each tooth takes to come through will vary, the order remains the same.

Every tooth has two parts: the crown which can be seen in the mouth; and the root which anchors the tooth in the jaw. The outside of the tooth is made of enamel which protects the crown and provides a strong surface for chewing. This enamel is not fully formed when the teeth first come through, so calcium and other minerals are required to strengthen it.

The enamel on baby teeth is thinner and softer than on permanent teeth and it can easily be attacked by acids formed by the bacteria living in plaque, a sticky deposit on the surface of the teeth. These bacteria use carbohydrates, such as sugar, to generate the acid.

All children need carbohydrates but some food and drinks contain a lot of simple sugars such as sucrose, fructose and glucose.

These sugars speed up the production of the acids which damage teeth by causing decay.

Healthy eating and drinking

Try to encourage your child to develop a savoury rather than a sweet tooth from the time you start weaning. Avoid sweets and biscuits and fizzy drinks and snacking on unhealthy foods between meals. Encourage your child to drink water with meals and in between meals rather than sweet drinks.

If you do give your child pure fruit juice, you need to remember that although it sounds healthy it contains a lot of natural sugar so it needs to be diluted; one part fruit juice with six to ten parts water.

Only offer diluted fruit drinks at mealtimes and always give them in a cup rather than a feeding bottle. Don’t let your child suck on a feeding bottle of juice or milk for any length of time – prolonged contact of the drink with the teeth, especially the front ones, can cause severe decay.

Cleaning your child’s teeth

As soon as your baby's first teeth appear, they should be cleaned every morning and at night. Brushing your baby’s teeth from an early age will get him into a routine and used to tooth brushing.

You need to continue cleaning your child’s teeth until he is old enough to clean them himself. Even then, you will need to supervise your child until he is around seven years of age, by which time he will have mastered the skill of brushing them properly himself.

The main point of cleaning teeth is to remove as much plaque as possible and toothpaste does this with the aid of abrasives.

Many manufacturers produce flavoured children's toothpaste, which contains fluoride, and a pea-sized amount on a child’s toothbrush is all that is required to clean a mouth full of teeth. Encourage your child to spit out the toothpaste after brushing, but not to rinse his mouth out with water as this reduces the benefit of the fluoride in the toothpaste.

Cleaning your child’s teeth at night, before bed, is especially important because when he is asleep the flow of protective saliva decreases, which means that any sugar in the mouth allows the plaque to stay acidic for a long time.

In the morning cleaning his teeth will help remove any build-up of plaque that has occurred during the night.

Fluoride

Fluoride, present in most toothpaste and in some water supplies, works by making the enamel stronger against attack from plaque.

Your local water authority should be able to tell you if fluoride is being added to your water. It is recommended that a fluoride toothpaste is used as soon as the first tooth appears.

Fluoride varnish is a treatment that dentists sometimes use to protect against tooth decay. The varnish contains high levels of fluoride and is painted onto the surface of the teeth. It works by strengthening the enamel.

The dentist

If you take your child with you when you go for your dental check-ups he will become familiar with the dentist before he has to start going himself.

Ask your dentist when you should start bringing your child in for check-ups. Your dentist will also be able to advise you about any special protective treatment your child may benefit from and check that his teeth are developing properly.

Even though he will eventually lose them all, your child's milk teeth are important.

He will need them to chew and eat with until he is around 12, so it makes good sense to care for them right from the start. Decay in milk teeth can also harm the growth and health of the permanent teeth when they come through.

Top tips to get your child brushing his teeth:

  • Use a timer set to two minutes so your child knows how long to brush for
  • Take your child with you to buy his toothbrush so that he can choose it himself. He’ll be keener to use it if it’s one he likes
  • Play your child a song while he brushes – choose one that lasts two to three minutes
  • Brush your teeth at the same time because he’ll love to copy you
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