The tooth of it: 4 facts to know about dental health for kids

When it comes to your child’s health and development, his or her teeth might not be the first thing to come to mind. But February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, so there’s no better time than now to get the facts about dental health!

While we might not think about it much, our oral health plays a large role in our overall health and wellness — and kids are no exception. As we grow older, having an unhealthy mouth can actually increase the risk of developing serious health issues like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

You’ve probably heard before that the habits we build in childhood are the ones most likely to stick around later in life. Well, that’s true. And that’s why it’s so important to establish healthy dental health habits at a young age.

Let’s take a look at four facts about dental health for kids.

Dental health fact 1: Baby teeth play a key role in overall development.
Teething — the bane of many a parent’s existence! But all that teething pain ultimately reaps positive things for your child’s health.

When a baby is born, 20 primary teeth are already in place under the gums. They typically start to emerge between ages 6 months and 1 year and are often fully in place by age 3.

But ultimately, these “baby” teeth all fall out. So what’s their purpose? They help your child chew, speak and smile — all key parts of the development process. They also hold space open in the jaws for the permanent teeth that grow under the gums.  

Dental health fact 2: Tooth decay is the most common disease among U.S. kids.
It’s true. According to the American Dental Association, tooth decay is five times as common as asthma in kids.

And that trend doesn’t get better as we age, either. A 2015 study found that more than 90 percent of American adults ages 20 to 64 had dental caries (cavities) in their permanent teeth. From age 65 on, that rate increases to 96 percent.  

What can we do to reverse that trend? Practicing regular dental hygiene, like tooth brushing and flossing, is vitally important.

But it turns out that one other important step might be limiting the amount of bottled water our kids drink — and making sure they drink fluoridated water instead.

Dental health fact 3: Dental hygiene should start early.
Baby teeth are at risk for tooth decay as soon as they emerge through the gums. Start cleaning those teeth once they peep through.

The American Dental Association offers recommendations for how to clean the teeth that vary based on age.

Beginning at birth and until the teeth break through, clean the gums regularly using a clean cloth.

For babies, brush the teeth using a dab of toothpaste the size of a grain of rice twice a day. Once a child develops teeth that are next to each other, it’s important to also clean between the teeth.

Children ages 3 to 6 should brush teeth twice a day using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.

Want to teach your little one how to brush his or her teeth? Sesame Street can help!

Dental health fact 4: “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay” is a real thing.
Tooth decay among babies and little kids is surprisingly common. Decay at a young age often occurs for a couple reasons — poor dental hygiene habits and the consumption of sugary beverages.

And by sugary beverages, we don’t just mean sodas.

Milk and formula both contain sugar. This isn’t a problem when the child drinks the liquid while awake, when saliva moves sugar off the teeth.

The problem occurs when a child drinks the sugar-laden liquid and then the sugar remains on the teeth, which is often the case when a child falls asleep immediately after drinking — or even with the bottle in hand.

To limit the risk of tooth decay, use bottles only for formula, milk or breastmilk and finish bedtime or naptime bottles before going to bed.

The bottom line on kids and dental health
The habits built in childhood will stick around as your children become adults. That’s why it’s so important to create solid dental health routines in kids when they’re little.

Doing so can help them lower their risk of cavities, tooth decay — and even serious health conditions.

Is it time for your little one to see a dentist for the first time? Your pediatrician can offer guidance on this question and others. Need a pediatrician? Find one here.