Healthy Teeth: Expert Tips for Every Age
Healthy teeth, dentists say, begin before a baby’s teeth come through the gums. Dr. Mark Gilstrap, a dentist at South Tulsa Kids Dental, says healthy teeth begin before a child is born.
“The first thing you can do to help your kids is, when moms know that they’re pregnant, to work on their oral health and oral hygiene,” Gilstrap says. “There have been studies that say that moms [who] have cavities and bacteria in their mouth pass it on to their babies.”
Gilstrap advises parents to begin baby’s good oral hygiene in infancy.
“Before kids have teeth, you can use gauze or a cloth after feedings to wipe out their mouth,” Gilstrap says. “Once teeth start to erupt, you can begin using a soft-bristle toothbrush [with] a fluoridated toothpaste the size of a grain of rice. Brush with that twice a day.”
Don’t worry if your child swallows it, he says, it won’t hurt them.
Gilstrap says there is a lot of evidence that just that tiny bit of fluoridated toothpaste has huge, positive effects on teeth as they’re coming in.
Getting your child to the dentist as soon as baby teeth start erupting or by the first birthday is important, so the dentist can check the teeth and make any adjustments for habits or abnormalities that aren’t immediately apparent.
Gilstrap says the ages of 3 to 5 are critical years for establishing good eating and brushing habits. At this age, children are getting their remaining baby teeth and are starting to eat and snack more often.
“Also, it’s shown that 40% of kids have cavities before they hit kindergarten,” he says.
Gilstrap recommends working diligently on preventing cavities during these years by brushing with a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste twice a day and flossing.
“Once teeth start touching or teeth are tight together, we’ve got to start flossing,” he says. “It seems crazy to start flossing so young, but I see a lot of cavities that start to form around this age, and it’s a good habit.”
Establishing good eating habits also is important to prevent cavities, he says.
“Anything that sticks in your teeth, stays in your teeth and has carbohydrates can cause cavities,” he says. “So being mindful of the snacks we give our kids, not letting them snack all day is big.”
That includes what kids drink.
“Anything other than water, potentially, is something that can cause a cavity,” he says. “Whether it’s milk, juice or even juice that’s watered down, it still has sugar in it and can cause cavities.”
This is especially important for night feeding.
“As soon as they’re getting teeth, especially a bottle through the night, they shouldn’t have anything other than water,” Gilstrap says, adding that he encourages parents to stop night-time feeding by the time their child turns 1.
He says many of his patients have healthy teeth for a while and then, suddenly, something changes.
“They get this bacteria all of a sudden, it colonizes, and it’s like a switch flips. The cavities start forming and parents tell me, ‘I didn’t do anything different.’”
He says that’s why it’s important to establish good habits to prevent cavities from forming in the first place to avoid having to fix them later.
Dr. Robert Herman is an orthodontist at Superior Care Orthodontics in Tulsa.
“The impact of sugar in our diet is the single biggest cause of decayed or diseased teeth and in gums, so we want to try to minimize that sugar intake as much as we can,” Herman says.
The other variable, he says, is PH, or acid levels, which are primarily found in sodas and sports drinks and can be really rough on teeth.
If you’re going to drink soda or sports drinks, Herman advises not to sip it all day.
“That just consistently bathes the teeth in the problem,” he says. “Instead, it’s much better to rinse your teeth — or even more preferable would be to brush them after having a drink like that.”
Children start getting their adult teeth between the ages of 6 and 11 years old.
“You get your first permanent molars at age 6, and those are the teeth that, throughout your entire life, are going to be prone to having the most cavities just because they’re the first adult teeth,” Gilstrap says.
At the same time, children at this age want to brush their own teeth, but they still need their parents’ help with brushing.
“Kids aren’t going to get it perfect, and the stakes are high when you start to get adult teeth,” he says.
To motivate children with a visual aid, Gilstrap recommends using plaque-disclosing tablets, which allow children and parents to see where they have missed brushing.
Do cavities mean that teeth will be weaker?
“The weakest part is where that filling meets the tooth,” Gilstrap says. “That’s not to say you will get another cavity, but it’s definitely started oa process where you’ve had one cavity, and it makes it more prone to getting one again.”
It’s a painful lesson and a pivotal point, Gilstrap says, to make changes to ensure your children don’t get any more cavities.
“Sometimes, teeth have natural grooves that are just really hard to clean, which is why we also recommend sealants at that age to prevent the cavities,” he says.
Sealants are done at the dentist’s office on permanent molars. They are preventative and fill in those grooves to make sure food does not get trapped inside.
“Studies have shown that it tremendously reduces the risk of getting cavities,” Gilstrap says. “Especially these really high-risk years where kids are maybe not the best at brushing or maybe don’t have the best habits, and they’re eating a lot of sugary, sweetened, carbohydrate-filled things, despite what we do as parents to try and stop it.”
Herman says the American Association of Orthodontists recommends that every child have an orthodontic evaluation at age 7.
“Not a lot of kids are going to need treatment that early,” he says, “but in some instances, there are conditions developing that if we don’t correct, will continue to worsen and then can really impact the long-term outcome.”
Herman says that when baby teeth are in the mouth, space is considered normal to allow space for the permanent teeth.
“If we see teeth that don’t have spaces in between them as baby teeth, well then that’s something we need to be looking at as a potential problem,” Herman says. “Secondly, most dentists are really effective and good at evaluating if there [are] cross bites.”
That’s when the upper jaw is too small or too narrow, which is another indication your child will need orthodontic treatment.
Older Kids and Teens
For older children, increased freedom of brushing and dietary choices, Gilstrap says, can often result in an increase in cavities.
Continuing to spot check their brushing with plaque-disclosing tablets, minimizing sugary drinks such as soda, sports drinks and juice and providing healthier snacks are still the way to prevention, he says.
“The amount of time your teeth have contact with any sugar has a greater effect on your teeth than the total amount of sugar you intake at one time,” Gilstrap says.
He says a lot of older kids who are wearing braces may have inflamed gums or relax their oral hygiene.
The primary goal is to commit more time in the schedule to keep the teeth clean with braces on than without them.
Herman recommends brushing and flossing after every meal.
“With braces on, it’s a little more difficult to floss, so we have to use super floss or floss threaders or some other auxiliary appliances to keep the spaces in between the teeth clean,” he says.
To maintain healthy gums, Herman advises using an effective mouth wash — one that kills germs and stays active in your mouth for several hours — and to keep it in your mouth for 90 seconds to two minutes after flossing and brushing.
“The importance of this age is teaching kids the principles and helping them to take ownership of their oral health,” Gilstrap says, “so that they are prepared to be completely independent upon graduation.”
The bottom line to have healthy teeth and gums, both doctors say, is to keep teeth clean, monitor the diet and visit the dentist routinely.