Tooth Decay Prevention

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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Tooth Decay.Tooth decay is often called the second most prevalent human disease, after the common cold. Without effective treatment (as was the case through most of history) it can lead to pain, tooth loss, and sometimes worse illnesses. Even today, it's estimated to affect over a quarter of U.S children from ages two to five, and half of those aged 12-15. But it doesn't necessarily have to! You can take steps to prevent tooth decay from harming your teeth — or those of your loved ones.

There's one important fact you should understand up front: No single “magic bullet” can stop tooth decay in every case. Instead, fighting decay should be viewed as a process of preventive maintenance, like taking care of your car — except that (unlike a car) your natural teeth, with proper care, can last a whole lifetime. The basic aspects of this process are practicing good oral hygiene at home, and coming in to the dental office for regular cleanings and checkups.

If you've been in the dental office for routine visits, you're probably already familiar with the special tools dentists use to remove buildups of plaque (a bacterial biofilm) and tartar (a hardened deposit, also called calculus) from your teeth. Hand-held instruments, ultrasonic scalers, or both may be used to give your teeth a thorough cleaning. Afterwards, your teeth are thoroughly checked for decay, and cavities are treated when necessary.

Yet there's still more that can be done to prevent tooth decay. Could your diet be a contributing factor? Is your brushing technique adequate? Could you benefit from additional preventive treatments? Today, with our increased understanding of what causes tooth decay and how to treat it, it is possible to focus on what decay prevention tactics would work best in your particular case. In fact, it's now possible to assess each individual's risk factors for decay, and concentrate on doing what's most effective for you.

How Does Decay Start?

Tooth Caries Balance.

It's useful to think of the mouth as a dynamically balanced ecosystem, in which living organisms, including helpful and harmful bacteria, are constantly interacting. When conditions are right — namely, in the presence of certain sugars — some pathogenic (harmful) bacteria produce acids that cause teeth to lose minerals and begin breaking down. Even a diet having excessive acidic foods can influence deminerialization of your teeth. But in more favorable conditions, the damage these pathogens do is undone by the body's own healing mechanisms — which includes your healthy saliva.

A major goal in decay prevention is to tip the balance in favor of the beneficial processes. Keeping up a regular habit of brushing and flossing, getting adequate fluoride, and a diet with limited acidic foods is certainly helpful. Yet even with these measures, some individuals will be more prone to tooth decay than others, and may need extra help and guidance.

Additional Steps to Prevent Tooth Decay

If you're one of these individuals, it may help you to learn effective brushing techniques and practice other measures at home — for example, using special toothpastes or mouthrinses. When necessary, in-office treatments such as topical fluoride applications are available. If you aren't getting enough fluoride through drinking water or other sources, this treatment can help prevent tooth decay. Anti-bacterial treatments may also be beneficial in some cases, as is nutritional counseling.

Dental Sealants.Finally, if your child's teeth are susceptible to tooth decay, consider having a dental sealant applied. This is a practically invisible layer of plastic resin that is placed on the top (chewing) surfaces of the back teeth. It's a painless procedure that fills in the natural pits and folds of the tooth, making them much more resistant to bacterial damage.

So, don't think that tooth decay is inevitable — instead, find out what you can do to help prevent this disease from affecting you or your loved ones.

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