Ages 3–5 | Preschool | Child Health + Development

Taking Care of Your Preschooler's Teeth

Taking care of your preschooler's teethAs a parent of a preschooler, you have enough to think about. So why bother taking care of your preschooler's teeth, when they are going to start falling out soon anyway?

Stephanie Su, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Redmond, says that a child's primary (baby) teeth are extremely important because they serve the following critical functions: They allow your child to chew naturally nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables; they are involved in speech development, and they help the permanent teeth by saving space for them. In addition, children with healthy teeth also have a better chance of general health, because disease in the mouth can endanger the rest of your preschooler's body.

Surprisingly, there is more at risk than physical health and development. "Studies show that children with poor oral health demonstrate poor social relationships and less success later in life, as well as decreased school performance because they are distracted and unable to concentrate when experiencing pain from decayed teeth," Su says. "Since preschoolers are just beginning to develop self-confidence and friendships at school, good oral health is a huge factor in a child's positive emotional development."

For both children and adults, good oral health means preventing cavities. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), cavities are the most common disease in children. Cavities form in your teeth when the bacteria in your mouth ferment the sugars in food into acid, which eats away at the teeth and causes holes. Fortunately, cavities can be prevented when you know the risk factors and practice recommended dental care on your teeth.

Your family's dental history plays a role in your preschooler's oral health. The AAFP says that everyone in your family should take good care of their teeth because family members with cavity-causing bacteria can pass those bacteria on to babies and children. Genetics also is a factor because it determines tooth placement and how easy or difficult it is to clean between the teeth.

Hygiene, of course, is a major contributor to healthy teeth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that you and your preschooler use a soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head at least once a day at bedtime. Fluoridated toothpaste should be introduced when a child is around 3 years old, with no more than a pea-sized amount on the brush. Parents should make sure that children spit out the excess toothpaste after brushing their teeth and that they don't swallow it.

Kids can also practice flossing their teeth as early as age 3. Su encourages parents to help floss their children's teeth either with regular floss or with hand-held disposable flossers. "Baby teeth are particularly prone to decay between the teeth due to their anatomy and thin enamel," she says, "so flossing those teeth is important."

Diet is perhaps the biggest factor in the formation of cavities. Proper nutrition not only helps keep your child -- and his or her teeth -- in overall good health, but it prevents cavities by limiting the amount of sugar consumed. Amy A. Napierala, DDS, author of "The Role of Diet in Cavity Prevention" on, writes, "Any food that can be broken down into sugars -- including all carbohydrates -- also can serve as the main supply of nutrients for the bacteria that cause tooth decay." Therefore, she notes, it's important to heed the common advice about avoiding sweets and sticky foods.

Napierala adds that "how often children eat such treats has a greater impact than the total quantity of sugar they consume," so it's also key to limit how much time your child spends snacking and drinking liquids other than water.

Another way to protect your child's teeth from cavities is to make sure he or she receives regular professional dental checkups. These could be with your regular family dentist or with a pediatric dentist who specializes in treating children's teeth. A dentist can advise you on proper tooth brushing, fluoride use, flossing and diet. In addition, they can offer assistance with any special dental health concerns you may have at this age, such as thumb-sucking and pacifier use, chips and fractures, or tooth grinding.

Taking good care of your preschooler's teeth at home and practicing preventative dentistry will help to establish a lifetime of good oral health habits. It's one more thing to think about, but also one you can't afford to forget.

Laurie Thompson is a freelance writer and mother of two preschoolers.

8 online resources for taking care of your preschooler's teeth:

1. Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child's Teeth, American Academy of Family Physicians 
2. Find a Pediatric Dentist, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) 
3.Frequently Asked Questions, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD)
4.Frequently Asked Questions, Dr. Stephanie Su 
5.Keeping Your Child's Teeth Healthy, KidsHealth 
6.Pediatric Oral Health Information for Parents, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) 
7.The Role of Diet in Cavity Prevention, Amy A. Napierala, D.D.S. 
8.Snack Smart for Healthy Teeth, National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)

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