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Words of Mouth: Summer Oral Care for Kids

Expert tips for brushing up on oral health habits during summer break

Kellie Schmitt
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Published on: July 29, 2022

Smiling little girl

Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Delta Dental of Washington.

Most parents have heard of the summer slide when it comes to academics, but children can also lose ground on important dental habits.

“The routine gets disrupted when summer happens,” says Kim Trieu, DDS, an Everett family dentist who also teaches at the University of Washington School of Dentistry and is a member dentist of Delta Dental of Washington (deltadentalwa.com). “And when we get out of routines, we get out of habits.”

Tricks of the tooth trade

That interruption can lead to delayed or forgotten dental hygiene routines. At the same time, summer brings additional dental challenges, from extra snacking to the heightened risk of mouth injuries. As a dentist and mom, Trieu has developed some strategies caregivers can employ to help keep children’s teeth and gums healthy and safe throughout the year.

For one, reminders of twice-daily brushing and flossing might be necessary, even for kids who were used to handling dental routines on their own. The American Dental Association recommends this twice-daily regime to remove food and plaque, which reduces one’s risk for developing cavities.

“Whenever you can control it, you are emphasizing and reminding them: ‘Did you brush yet?’” says Trieu.

Consider posting a visual reminder on a bathroom mirror or setting a daily phone alarm. Checklists are also great when it comes to boosting accountability. For younger kids, sticker or coloring charts (like this one from the American Dental Association) can lead to a bigger reward, such as special time with a parent.

By age 10 or 11, children tend to have enough manual dexterity to brush and floss their teeth by themselves. But it’s like riding a bike just after removing the training wheels: Some assistance may be necessary. After a child finishes the job, pull back their lip to check for plaque. You might find a chunk of plaque at the gum line, a telltale sign that they’re missing a spot.

“Give them feedback: ‘Oh hey, did you see all that stuff?’” says Trieu. “‘Aim a little higher at the gum.’”

For visual learners, parents can purchase plaque-disclosing tablets, which color lingering plaque. These could also spur a fun, friendly family competition: Who brushed best?

Smart summer snacking

Another summer dental challenge comes in the form of frequent snacking. Overindulgence can put kids at risk for plaque buildup, which can lead to inflammation, gum disease and even cavities.

Trieu recommends offering high-protein snacks that are less likely to stick to teeth, such as cheese, yogurt, whole milk, smoothies, meats and oatmeal. Fruits and vegetables are always a safe bet. Limit snacks that tend to linger in tooth crevices, such as potato chips, crackers, dried fruits, gummies and sticky candies. Sugary drinks, such as soda and sports drinks, should also be minimized.

There are some popular misconceptions that salty snacks are better because they’re not as sweet. That’s not the case, though, Trieu says. Those starches convert to sugars.

“Crackers and chips stick in the pits and grooves,” says Trieu. “If you’re not swishing with water or milk, they will stay there on the teeth.”

In fact, some sweet treats — for instance, ice cream — are better for dental hygiene because they easily slough off the tooth surface, Trieu notes.

Be ready for dental emergencies

With kids being more physically active during the summer, there’s also a greater likelihood of a dental emergency. Before an incident happens, familiarize yourself with your dentist’s after-hours or emergency contact information.

If a child’s permanent teeth are affected, caregivers need to act quickly — within an hour, if possible. Trieu most commonly sees damage to the front upper teeth. That’s why she recommends that kids wear a soft plastic mouthguard when participating in high-contact sports such as hockey or football.

When a permanent tooth comes out, it’s important to call a dentist immediately. If the roots are intact, an adult can hold the tooth by the crown and attempt to reinsert it into the tooth socket. It’s possible the fibers may help it adhere. If the adult is too scared or parts are missing, put the tooth in Hanks’ Balanced Salt Solution before heading to the dentist, Trieu advises. The goal is to save all of the fibers so that the tooth can be successfully re-implanted. (If you don’t have this solution on hand, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry also suggests putting the tooth in a glass of milk and taking your child and the tooth immediately to your pediatric dentist.)

While losing a baby tooth isn’t as time-sensitive an emergency, it’s still important to visit a dentist to have the soft tissue checked. Even if a child’s teeth appear fine after a fall, make a note of any serious impacts to their head and share it with the dentist. Sometimes an impact can lead to the development of joint dysfunctions years later.

Of course, prevention is always the best strategy. Trieu advises parents to closely monitor their kids when they are riding on two-wheeled scooters or when more than one child is jumping on a trampoline. She also recommends that kids wear a mouthguard along with a helmet when participating in any high-risk activities.

Take advantage of summer schedules

While summer’s open schedules might disrupt dental routines, less busy days present a good opportunity to book a visit to the dentist.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends a visit by age 1 or within six months after your child’s first tooth erupts. While this visit is mostly for parent education, it’s also important in establishing a trusted relationship with a dentist. Early and regular dental visits normalize oral health care as a priority.

“You want to start developing a relationship with a dentist early,” says Trieu.

Rather than emphasizing a fear of cavities, Trieu suggests focusing on the relationship and trust you can create with your family’s dentist. That connection will go a long way in helping children maintain healthy dental habits — even in the summer.

For parents looking for fun ways to teach kids about caring for their smiles, The Tooth Fairy Experience website provides helpful year-round resources, including a dental tips blog, child dental health activity sheets for home use, a quarterly Grin & Grow e-newsletter, Tooth Fairy letters for children, a Tooth Fairy hotline with prerecorded messages, and links to other Delta Dental of Washington resources, such as help in finding a dentist.

In addition, families can follow the Tooth Fairy team on its Facebook and Instagram channels (@ToothFairyWA).

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