June 11, 2009
Never too young to brush
Start at birth by cleaning the baby's gums and use a brush when he turns one. Dentists tell ESTELLE LOW why a child's first set of teeth are important
A child as young as four years can have tooth decay, so the best way to prevent it is to start him or her early on dental hygiene.
In a 2003 national oral health survey of Singapore children, about 48 per cent of six-year-olds had tooth decay. Almost half of them had four or more decayed teeth.
Most had dental caries, caused by sticky deposits (called plaque) that collect around the gum line and grooved surfaces of the teeth.
Plaque results from food debris, saliva and bacteria in the mouth.
When left to collect over time, it dissolves the protective coating of the tooth to create cavities which form over a period of months or even years and are usually painless.
If untreated, cavities can kill the nerve and blood vessels of the tooth and ultimately, the tooth itself.
Your child's first set of teeth or primary teeth are extremely important. Strong, healthy primary teeth help him chew food easily, learn to speak clearly and look good.
They also hold the spaces for the permanent teeth to come into good position. Your child's general health can be affected if diseased or broken primary teeth are not treated early.
The biggest problem in early childhood that can potentially cause cavities is weaning off the milk bottle late, said Dr Rashid Tahir, a paediatric dentist at Camden Medical Centre and president of the Society for Paediatric Dentistry (Singapore).
This is commonly known as baby bottle tooth decay. Cavities may occur when a child drinks from the milk bottle and falls asleep, letting the milk stagnate and the saliva in the mouth to dry up. This makes the teeth more prone to cavities.
'It is best to wean children off the milk bottle at 12 to 14 months. They should still drink milk but from a cup so that they will not fall asleep during feeding,' said Dr Rashid.
Allowing them to drink milk to sleep can be potentially harmful.
'Children can be encouraged to develop other habits to fall asleep like reading a bedtime story or hugging a favourite pillow,' Dr Rashid suggested.
A first visit to the dentist by your child's first birthday is necessary, the website of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry advised.
Agreeing, Dr Rashid said: 'It is not just for the child to get used to the dental room but, more importantly, for the dentist to assess the child's risk of developing oral diseases.'
In fact, preventing tooth decay starts from conception, said Dr Tan Wee Kiat, a senior consultant at the paediatric dentistry unit at the National Dental Centre.
'Milk teeth start to develop in the first six weeks of foetal life and some viral infections can affect the development of teeth,' he said.
Thus, the general health of the mother during pregnancy is important.
Being on a balanced diet helps. Good oral health is important too because a mother or caregiver can transmit bacteria - responsible for dental disease - to her infant. This can occur through sharing of food or eating utensils.
'It makes good sense for the mother or caregiver to have good oral health to minimise this cross infection,' she said.
CARING FOR YOUR CHILD'S TEETH
1: Clean your child's gums from day one. This is to let your baby get used to the sensation of cleaning and having a clean mouth, said Dr Rashid Tahir.
'Babies should have their gums cleaned with a wet towel twice a day, when they are given a bath,' he said, and 'convert to a soft bristle toothbrush when they are one year old'.
As the child gets older, there will be less resistance to teeth cleaning.
2: Brush your child's teeth, at least until he reaches the age of six.
By that age, he will be able to write and will have sufficient dexterity to brush his own teeth, Dr Rashid said.
Brushing teeth removes food debris and bacterial plaque that causes diseases, as well as spreads the toothpaste, which contains fluoride to strengthen the teeth against cavities.
3: Lift the upper lip while brushing and check the upper front teeth.
This is the best method for early detection of cavities caused by drinking from a milk bottle while sleeping, said Dr Rashid.
Known as baby bottle tooth decay, it makes a child's teeth more prone to cavities.
4: Cut down their sugar intake.
Exposure to excess sugar in children's diets can cause cavities.
Juices or fizzy drinks are not only high in sugar but they are also acidic, which may dissolve the teeth, causing erosion, said Dr Rashid.
5: Parents, you are role models, so visit the dentist regularly. Good habits like regular brushing and abstaining from sugary snacks will also rub off on your child if you observe them, said Dr Tan Wee Kiat.