My name is Dr Deb and I’m a Specialist Paediatric Dentist from Melbourne. I am super passionate and excited to be able to help you along your journey with de-mystifying the myths about dental care for your little ones, making oral health care and visiting the dentist very fun, and finding the best ways for your child to prevent teeth problems, such as decay!
What is decay?
Dental decay, also known as dental cavities or dental caries are sometimes known as ‘holes’ in teeth. Ever wondered how dental decay actually forms? In our mouths, we have thousands of germs that enjoy the sugary snacks (and simple carbohydrates) that we put in our mouths. If we don’t clean our teeth or limit our snacks, the germs eat our treats and produces nasty acids which actually ‘eat away’ part of our teeth, causing dental decay. As they get deeper, more of the teeth can break down. Decay, if left untreated, will grow deeper into the tooth and may cause toothaches and infections which can spread in the mouth or even beyond the oral cavity!
In fact, one of the primary reasons for preventable hospital admissions in Australia is due to dental decay! Sadly, in 2017 to 2018 alone, over 72 000 children were admitted to hospital due to dental decay, many with subsequent spread of infection (AIHW 2021). Spreading of dental infection can make a child very sick, possibly needing intravenous antibiotics and overnight admission to a hospital, with treatment completed under general anaesthesia. It can even become a medical emergency, especially if infection spreads directly to the child’s brain, body (septicemia) or other parts of the body.
Why are baby teeth so important?
This is a question I get asked a lot! After all, don’t baby teeth just fall out? The truth is, while the upper and lower front four teeth (‘incisors’) might fall out around age 6-8 years of age, the back teeth don’t fall out until 10-12 years of age. It is important your child’s teeth are preserved and kept strong and healthy.
Not only do teeth play a big part of your child’s confidence and smile, and also in the functional part of eating, but dental decay is associated with pain, interrupted sleep patterns (which can have a negative effect on a child’s normal growth and development) and poorer learning outcomes at school (COAG 2015, AIHW 2016). In many cases, if decay causing a toothache, it means that the dental decay is quite deep and therefore requires more invasive treatment, such as extractions or nerve treatments of baby teeth.
Did you know that the presence of untreated decay on some baby molar teeth can result in a 15x increased likelihood of decay on adult molar teeth! (Mejare et al 2001) This figure is astounding and again it emphasises that – baby teeth are just as important as adult teeth!
Keeping our teeth healthy and happy
‘So what can we do to prevent all these problems?’, I hear you say. The good news is that in most cases, dental decay can be prevented or minimised. This involves creating an at-home dental care routine, eating a healthy diet, and seeing the dentist regularly, from an early age.
What can I do at home?
Caring for the teeth starts at home! As soon as you see a tooth starting to grow from your little one’s gums, we recommend twice-daily toothbrushing! Start using a soft toothbrush or a silicone finger brush dipped with a little water. Gently brush the tooth and massage the gums for a minute or two. This will not only aid in cleansing of the tooth, but will also start to help your little one get used to a healthy, life-long habit!
Your dentist will assess your child specifically, but in most cases, a low-dose fluoridated toothpaste should be used from age 18 months and onwards. At this point, a small headed, soft-bristled toothbrush should be used. Don’t forget to lift the lips and brush the front, the ‘top’ and the back of all teeth! Toothbrush in gentle, small circular motions. While some tots enjoy toothbrushing, others might take longer to get used to it. This is completely normal!
In order to encourage your child to love toothbrushing, here are some helpful tips:
- Sing a song – Quickly googling ‘tooth brushing song’ will bring up a myriad of fun Youtube videos, which you can help incorporate into your daily routine with toothbrushing. Alternatively, for older children, you can play your child’s favourite song and ensure they toothbrush for the duration of the song.
- Make it fun – There are several toothbrushing apps which might help engage your child’s attention, including the ‘Disney Magic Timer’ and ‘The Wiggles’ toothbrushing phone app.
- Follow the leader – Monkey see, monkey do. Our children look up to you and their older siblings! Ask your child’s older siblings to demonstrate toothbrushing and show the little ones how much fun it is to clean the teeth. Soon your child will want to join in and copy their brother or sister!
- Receive a prize! Who doesn’t like prizes? Create a fun sticker or stamp chart for toothbrushing (and flossing – more on this later). Children find it very rewarding to be able to see their chart being filled up with fun stickers. Perhaps they will even earn a small prize once they finish off a few weeks of consistent toothbrushing!
- Little miss/master independent – So your child doesn’t like you toothbrushing their teeth and they like to do it themselves! That’s okay, we like to empower your children and encourage them to be strong and independent. Let your little one take the reins and toothbrush their own teeth, while you supervise. Just make sure that once a day, you finish off the toothbrushing, especially focussing on the back teeth to double check, as teeth do have little nooks and crannies which are tricky to reach!
The right toothpaste for you!
Once your child is six years of age, switch them over to a stronger fluoridated toothpaste, for toothbrushing twice daily. While most mainstream brands are minty, you might find they are a bit strong and spicy for your child’s developing tastebuds. It’s fantastic that Grin Natural have developed a delicious fruity-flavoured toothpaste in the ‘berry-licious’ flavour, which also has the recommended dose of fluoride.
You can pair this with a biodegradable toothbrush, which is made completely of corn starch. While a lot of products in the dental world are high in plastic and not very environmentally friendly, the Grin Natural toothbrush has a focus on sustainability, is environmentally friendly and fun.
What about flossing? (Isn’t that a dance?)
In my experience as a Specialist Paediatric Dentist, one of the main areas of the mouth that we see dental decay is ‘in between’ the teeth. That’s right – if your child has back teeth which are touching together, it is a very tricky area to clean, and a place that the sneaky germs like to hide in. Ever had food trapped in between your teeth? That’s the perfect hidey hole for the germs!
When your child has teeth which touch together, in addition to your twice-daily toothbrushing, we highly recommend daily flossing of the teeth. I know that flossing can feel quite daunting, especially as even many adults haven’t yet mastered it – so we recommend something easy to use, such as flossers. Let your child lie down on a comfortable sofa or bed, and help them floss their teeth. Sometimes, distracting your child is useful. Play their favourite Youtube video or Netflix show, while you floss their teeth. If you are concerned about the environmental effect of single-use flossers, rest assured, there are environmentally friendly options, such as the Grin Natural biodegradable dental flosser. Just remove the floss thread and the entire floss handle can easily be put into your compost!
On the right track
Dental health is so important for your child, and it’s something we can establish from a young age. Keeping your child’s teeth strong and healthy from early on is something which can have positive flow-on effects for the rest of your child’s life! It is recommended that your child’s first dental visit be completed by their first birthday, in order to establish the right habits and to help your child to have a positive experience at the dentist. Choose the right dentist for your child’s personality and age. As a Paediatric Dentist, I am a dental specialist who is solely dedicated to caring of the oral health of infants, children and adolescents. Our focus is always on preventing problems, first and foremost, as well as ensuring your child has a fun experience from their very first dental check-up!
About the Author
Dr Deb Wong (BDS DCD[Paed] MRACDS[Paed] GCHlthPsych LMusA) is a Specialist Paediatric Dentist from Melbourne, Australia, whose goal is to help children grow up to be proud of their smile, be confident when visiting the dentist, and to feel empowered about taking care of their oral health, for life! She can be found via her website (www.drdebwong.com.au).