Baby teeth might not be around for the long haul, but they do play a key role in developing speech, saving space for their 'big teeth', helping their jaw and face grow and, of course, chewing.
This means as soon as your bub sprouts their first tooth, it's important to keep it clean and healthy. Even tiny pearly whites are at risk of tooth decay, so let's look at some new research around dental health and brush up on how to care for your young child's teeth.
Is tooth decay genetic or preventable?
The good news is that it's preventable and you're not born to have bad teeth. According to a recent study by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute a person's genetic make-up doesn't make them more likely to have tooth decay – in fact, genetics have little impact on your dental health.
To reach this conclusion, Australian researchers looked at the teeth of 173 sets of twins, collecting their data from pregnancy through to the age of six, and found that even identical twins (with identical genomes) had different levels of decay.
Instead of blaming genetics for poor dental health, researchers say that, 'Environmental factors, like a lack of fluoride in water, seem to be the prime cause of cavities' and they stress the importance of children starting preventative measures early in life, before teeth are damaged.
The study also looked at early life risk factors, such as illness and lifestyle, and researchers did find a link between the mother's weight during pregnancy and her child's future dental health.
The offspring of obese mothers were more likely to have childhood tooth cavities, and lead researcher, Dr Mihiri Silva says, 'Perhaps the mother's weight has a biological influence on the developing foetus or perhaps the risk of decay rises because of increased sugar consumption in that household.'
What is the effect of childhood tooth decay?
In Australia, it's estimated that one in three kids have tooth decay by the time they start school, and each year, more than 26,000 Aussie children under the age of 15 are hospitalised because they have tooth decay. This makes dental disease the highest cause of acute, preventable hospital stays for kids, and the rotten news doesn't end there.
The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne (RCHM) says that, 'Dental disease and tooth decay can cause poor nutrition, growth and development, and can negatively impact a child's quality of life.'
For instance, poor teeth might affect a child's confidence, cause pain and take the pleasure out of eating chewy or crunchy foods.
What's more, children with dental disease often go on to have poor oral health when they grow up, and Dr Silva says there is a clear link between child cavities and people developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
For all these reasons, it's important that parents, child-carers and health professionals promote good dental health at home and elsewhere in children's lives.
How can you protect your young child's smile?
As soon as that first tooth pops through the gum, it's time to start brushing. To protect your child's teeth from decay and teach them good dental habits, the RCHM recommends that you:
- Brush your child's teeth twice a day, after breakfast and before bed, using a small, soft toothbrush. You will need to do this for your baby or toddler, and around the time they turn two, your little one can start to help with the brushing by holding their toothbrush. As they gain independence, it's still important to supervise your child's brushing until they're about eight.
- Use a pea-sized glob of low-fluoride toothpaste from the age of 18 months to six years. Fluoride is found in most Australian tap water, as well as toothpaste, and HealthEd, says that it strengthens growing teeth and can help fix the very early stages of tooth decay.
- Teach your child to floss daily when their teeth start to fit closely together, between the ages of about two and six.
- Make dental hygiene fun for your child. You can sing songs, brush your teeth together, give your child a special toothbrush (e.g. in their favourite colour) or give them a second toothbrush, so they can brush Teddy's teeth while you brush theirs.
- Have a dental check-up when the first tooth emerges or by their first birthday, then see the dentist every six to 12 months going forward. Free public dental services are available for Australian children, and you can read more about the Federal Government's Child Dental Benefits Schedule here.
- Give them healthy food and tap water to drink. Tooth decay occurs when mouth bacteria feed on sugar from food and drinks then produce acid, which erodes the tooth enamel and causes holes. To support all that good brushing and avoid decay, stick with a low-sugar diet and make tap water their main drink from the age of 12 months (it contains fluoride and no sweeteners).
At the end of the day, healthy baby teeth usually mean healthy adult teeth, so whether your infant has one toothy-peg or your three-year-old has a set of 20, good oral care in the early years is definitely something to smile about.