Graceful Health: Teaching kids to care for their teeth

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February is National Children's Dental Health Month, and this is a good opportunity to share a few tips to help children take good care of their teeth.

The condition of our teeth can affect general health, self-esteem, and even our ability to eat healthy food. That's why it's so important that we give our teeth the attention they deserve.

Dental hygiene should begin at birth. Parents can begin by cleaning a baby's gums with a soft cloth or soft brush at least once a day.

As the teeth begin to emerge, brush your baby's teeth daily, starting with the very first one, and using a small amount of toothpaste on a brush specifically designed for a baby's small mouth. You can discuss with your provider whether or not your child needs fluoride supplements to prevent decay. You can also help prevent tooth decay by providing only water in a bed-time bottle.

You might wonder - since the baby's first teeth are not permanent, are they really that important? Yes! A decayed tooth can spread infection throughout the body, making the child sick in other ways. Secondly, children may be embarrassed by the condition of their teeth, making them shy and reluctant to smile. Furthermore, baby teeth hold a place for the permanent teeth. When a baby tooth falls out prematurely, before the permanent tooth has formed, this could cause misalignment of the adult teeth.

Food choice also has a big impact on dental health. A balanced diet, rich with fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy, is the best approach for healthy teeth, as well as for health in general, for children and for adults. (Children generally follow the patterns of their parents, so it is worth reflecting on your own eating habits if you want your children to have good teeth.)

It has been said many times, and is worth repeating: avoid serving your child lots of sweets and starches. You may need to be a bit of a sleuth to find the hidden sugars in foods. Sugar comes in many forms and has many names. Fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin, maltose, and anything labeled syrup - these are just a few of the names used for various sugars in a product label. Pre-made pasta sauces, granola bars, sugary breakfast cereals (including instant oatmeal), yogurt, packaged fruit, and fruit juice are just a few of the foods that are notorious for their sugar content. Keep them to a minimum.

Beyond the dental hygiene you can do at home, it is important to establish a regular habit of dental care by a professional. Most dentists will start seeing children between one and three years of age, depending on their risk for dental problems. Once this is established, children should be seen by their dentist every six months.

Children attending schools in the Windham Central Supervisory Union, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, and parts of the Windsor Supervisory Union have access to some free dental care at school. A program overseen by the Springfield Medical Care Systems, and funded by the Fanny Holt Ames and Louise Edna Holt Fund and the Stratton Foundation, has been providing site visits to schools by a registered dental hygienist.

Barbara Hodgkins, the "Children's Dental Health Project" grant-funded hygienist, goes to each school several times a year to provide assessments, cleanings, and treatments, including application of fluoride, sealants, and silver diamine. This service is free for all children, whether they have insurance or not. She also educates children about good dental hygiene, and she's making a difference in attitudes and habits, as kids regularly tell her how proud they are of brushing regularly!

It's been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Maybe that's true about taking care of a child's teeth as well. Doctors, dentists, parents, and school dental hygienists can share the same message: teeth are important to our overall health and happiness, and we can work together to give our children more good reasons to smile!

Dr. Elizabeth Linder has been Grace Cottage Family Health's pediatrician since 1997. A graduate of Pomona College and the University of Vermont School of Medicine, Dr. Linder completed her residency in pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.


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