Parents are responsible for teaching children the life skills needed as they journey towards adulthood.  Parents are the first ones to steady a child’s wobbly steps.  They are the first to mimic words as their child begins expressing themselves with language.  Parents play an integral role as an educator long before a child walks through the doors of a school.

When it comes to oral health, parents and caregivers are in one of their most important roles ever.  Teaching children how to care for their teeth is a foundational skill necessary for overall health throughout their entire lifetime.  Teeth are important.  Teeth help us eat the food that sustains us.  Teeth help us talk.  And teeth can also be a reflective part of a child’s self-esteem. 

Good oral health habits begin at birth.  Wiping infant’s gums after feedings promotes early dental hygiene while getting them used to having their mouth cleaned daily.  It can make the routine of tooth brushing an easier transition, as tiny teeth begin peeking through the gums. 

Baby teeth have often been seen as less valuable because they will eventually be replaced with an adult tooth.  However, baby teeth serve the same function as adult teeth and require the same type of care.  Additionally, baby teeth hold a space in a child’s mouth to make room for the adult tooth to take up its permanent residency.   

Good oral health care is a habit that requires the constant, ongoing participation of a parent to see the child is getting the job done. This includes teenagers!  It should be noted that parents and caregivers need to help children with daily tooth brushing until they are about 8 years old.  This is because young children have not developed the fine motor skills to properly brush all their teeth.

Besides establishing daily routines of brushing and flossing, parents need to be sure a child is eating a diet that is low in sugar and high in nutrients.  Meals and snacks containing fresh vegetables, fruits and proteins are a healthier choice for both oral and physical health.  Carbohydrates such as crackers and potato chips should be limited because they are starchy and stick to teeth.  Soda, energy and sports drinks can erode and decay teeth because they are acidic.  These types of drinks can damage enamel which protects teeth from decay.  One hundred percent fruit juices while a healthier alternative should be served in small quantities as they contain a fair amount of sugar.  One suggestion is to dilute juices with water to decrease the sugar content.  Of course, drinking plenty of water throughout the day is always recommended.

Finally, it is important for a child to see a dentist every six months starting around the time they get their first tooth.  (Check with your child’s dentist on when to schedule their first visit as this can vary).  Regular cleanings by a health care professional should be a part of a child’s dental plan.  Early intervention can often create less of a traumatic and fearful experience with dentists.  Dental problems can develop into severely painful situations causing distress and missed days at school.  If left untreated, infections can become serious and spread to other areas of the body.  Establishing a dental home is an important part of a child’s healthcare regiment. 

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, ”tooth decay is the most common chronic condition in children” (CDC, 2014).  Yet-it is a preventable!   “For many children, brushing their teeth is seen as a chore they don’t want to do.  As a parent, it’s your responsibility to ensure your child’s oral health.” (PDCF, 2016).  This includes helping young children with brushing their teeth, making sure teens are doing what you asked them to do and being a role model yourself, as your child’s most important teacher.

Dental care is a family affair.  And dental decay is preventable!

Mairead Dodd is a retired Oral Health Educator with Redwood Community Action Agency’s TOOTH Program.  If there are topics you would like to see in TOOTH Talk, please contact:
Urban Child Institute (UCI) (2013, March 12).  Parents: The Most  Important Teachers.  Retrieved from URL.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  (2014, November ).  Children’s Oral Health.  Retrieved form URL.
Pediatric Dentistry of Central Florida (2016, July 13).  8 Tips to Get Your Child to Brush Their Teeth.  Retrieved from URL.