Nutrition & Oral Health

Your child won't keep his or her first teeth forever, but that doesn't mean those tiny pearly whites don't need conscientious care. Maintaining your child's dental health now will provide health benefits well into adulthood, as primary (baby) teeth serve some extremely important functions.

Kids developing jaws and teeth.

For one thing, primary teeth serve as guides for the eruption of permanent (adult) teeth, holding the space into which these new teeth will erupt. The crowns (tops) of the permanent teeth actually push against the roots of the baby teeth, causing them to resorb, or melt away. In this way, the adult teeth can take their proper place.

What's more, your child's primary teeth will be there for most of childhood, helping your child to bite, chew and speak. For the first six or so years, he or she will be relying on primary teeth exclusively to perform these important functions. Until around age 12, your child will have a mix of primary and permanent teeth. You will want to make sure those teeth stay healthy and are lost naturally — when it's time.

Your Child's First Teeth

Kids mouth anatomy.

Your child's 20 baby teeth will begin to appear usually between six and nine months, though in some cases it may start as early as three months or as late as twelve months. The two lower front teeth tend to erupt first, followed by the two upper ones, these teeth are called the central incisors. Then the neighboring teeth called lateral incisors will erupt too. The first molars come in next, followed by the canines (eyeteeth). And finally, the last teeth to erupt are the two-year molars. Sometimes your baby can experience teething discomfort during this process. If so, there are courses of action to help make your child more comfortable.

Your infant's gums should be gently wiped after each feeding with a water-soaked gauze pad or damp washcloth. As soon as the first tooth erupts, establish a daily brushing routine with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and no more than a thin smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Your child may need your help with this important task until about the age of 6.

Your Child's First Dental Appointment

Age one dental visit

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that your child see a dentist by his/her first birthday, or as early as the first tooth erupts. Though this may sound early, learning proper pediatric oral hygiene techniques, checking for cavities, and watching for developmental problems is extremely important.

There are a number of forms of tooth decay that can affect babies and small children. Early Childhood Caries (tooth decay) can develop rapidly, progressing from the hard, outer enamel layer of a tooth into the softer, inner dentin in six months or less.

Most of all, it's important for your child to have a positive experience at the dental office as he/she will be a regular visitor for years to come.

Pediatric Dental Treatments

There are a variety of dental treatments offered to prevent tooth decay in children, or to save or repair teeth when necessary. They include:

Topical Fluoride — Fluoride incorporates into the enamel of teeth, making it harder and more resistant to decay. Although there is a small amount of fluoride in toothpastes and in some drinking water supplies, a higher concentration can be applied professionally to your child's teeth for maximum protection.

Dental Sealants — A plastic coating can be applied at the dental office to prevent cavities by sealing the little grooves on the chewing surfaces of back teeth known as “pits and fissures.” These little crevices become the perfect environments for decay-causing bacteria. Immature tooth enamel is more permeable and therefore less resistant to tooth decay. Dental sealants are easy to apply and provide years of protection (Watch Dental Sealant Video).

Root Canal Treatment — Perhaps you have had a root canal treatment yourself, to save an injured or severely decayed tooth. Well, sometimes children need root canals, too. In children these are called pulpotomies or pulpectomies. As mentioned above, baby teeth are important guides to the permanent teeth that are already forming beneath your child's gums. Therefore, saving them from premature loss can help prevent a malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite) that requires orthodontic treatment.

Bonding — Chips and minor fractures to front teeth — common childhood occurrences — can be repaired with tooth-colored bonding materials. These lifelike resins made of plastic and glass can be used on baby teeth as well as permanent teeth and last until the youngster has completed facial growth (Watch Bonding Video).

Orthodontic Concerns

Orthodontic Problems.

By around age 7, most malocclusions have become evident. Interceptive orthodontic treatment around this time can help direct proper tooth positioning and/or jaw growth, eliminating or simplifying the need for later treatment. There are many orthodontic problems that can be detected early and are examples of why a trained professional should evaluate your child during his/her growth and development.

Sports & Your Child's Teeth

If your child is active in sports, a custom-made mouthguard is a highly recommended safeguard. According to the American Dental Association, an athlete is 60 times more likely to suffer dental harm when not wearing one of these protective devices. A custom mouthguard is made specifically for your child using a model of his or her teeth. This will offer greater protection than an off-the-shelf model. It's an investment that pays off highly in the form of reduced pain, suffering — and dental expenses down the road!

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Nutrition and oral health.You probably already realize that maintaining a balanced diet offers a host of benefits to your overall health. But did you know diet also directly affects the health of your teeth and gums? It all starts before birth, as a baby's teeth begin forming in the sixth week of pregnancy and mineralizing in the third or fourth month. During this time, an expectant mother needs to take in lots of calcium (the major component of teeth) along with vitamin D, phosphorous and protein. Dairy products including milk, cheese, and yogurt have all of these. Broccoli and kale also have calcium, while meats are good sources of protein and phosphorous. These foods are also important for children, whose teeth continue to develop and mineralize through the teen years.

Throughout life, oral tissues are constantly recycling; they need a variety of nutrients to support this process. It's equally important to recognize that nutritional deficiencies — a particular concern among older adults who have lost teeth — can reduce resistance to disease and hinder your ability to fight infection. Studies have consistently found that a high intake of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk for oral cancer — as well as other types of cancer. That's why eating a nutritious diet is important for oral health — as well as general health — at any age.

Eating Healthy

What's the best diet for you? That depends mainly on your age, gender, height, weight and level of physical activity. But in general, a health-promoting diet is based on the concepts of:

  • Variety. No single food can meet all of the daily nutrient requirements. Eating lots of different foods also makes meals more interesting.
  • Balance. We need to eat the recommended amounts of foods from specific categories on a daily basis. Find out what your specific needs are at www.choosemyplate.gov
  • Moderation. Don't supersize it. Foods and beverages should be consumed in serving sizes that are appropriate to meet energy needs while controlling calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, and — particularly important in the dental arena — sugar.

Protecting Your Teeth

Your diet (which includes what you drink) plays a major role in tooth decay and enamel erosion. Your mouth is naturally hospitable to all kinds of bacteria. Some of these microorganisms are helpful and some are harmful, and many of the harmful ones thrive on a steady supply of sugar. As they process sugar from your diet, these bacteria produce acids that can eat into the enamel of your teeth, forming small holes called cavities. If left untreated, tooth decay can worsen, become quite painful, and threaten the survival of teeth.

Soda and tooth erosion.That's why it is important to avoid food and drinks with added sugar. If you have a sugar craving (and we all do from time to time), choose fresh fruit or yogurt instead of a donut or candy bar. Fortunately, there is no evidence that sugars in whole grain foods, whole fruits and vegetables, and in starch-rich staple foods like bread, rice and potatoes are harmful to teeth.

Soft drinks, however, are a double whammy for teeth; many not only contain lots of sugar — up to 10 teaspoons per 12-ounce can — but they are also highly acidic. This means they erode teeth on contact, even before the bacteria in your mouth have processed the sugar these drinks contain. But even if they are sugar-free, the acid can still harm your teeth. So it might be best to avoid soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and canned iced tea. If you do occasionally have a soda, swish some water in your mouth afterwards — but don't brush your teeth for at least an hour! Doing so could make it easy for tooth enamel, already softened up by acid, to be eroded away by brushing.

Drinking lots of water can help you maintain a healthy supply of saliva, which protects teeth by neutralizing acid. You can also neutralize the acid in your mouth after a sugary snack by following it up with a piece of cheese.

Finally, remember that it's not just what you eat that affects the level of acidity in your mouth — it's also when. Snacking throughout the day, especially on chips, crackers, cookies or candy, means that your saliva never gets the chance to neutralize the harmful acids being produced. So if you eat sweets, do it only at mealtimes. As an added incentive, you may find this helps you maintain a healthy weight, too!

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