What Parents Need to Know About Kids' Dental Hygiene During the Pandemic


Illustration for article titled What Parents Need to Know About Kids Dental Hygiene During the Pandemic
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For the past year, we’ve had to scrutinize every appointment we’ve made, every errand we’ve run, and every invitation we’ve accepted or declined. It’s been a constant exercise in risk management. Is possible exposure to COVID-19 worth holding onto a steady paycheck, keeping my child in school, picking up some toiletries, getting a haircut, seeing a friend?

One unfortunate side effect is that some parents are choosing to skip routine preventative dental care appointments in favor of keeping kids home and germ-free—or they’re finding it challenging to get an appointment now due to a backlog of visits and social distancing practices. As CNN reports, citing a survey released by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health:

Since the pandemic began, 40% of parents have avoided seeking care at all, citing concerns about infection, office closures and cost.

That’s not good, said pediatric dentist and American Dental Association spokesperson Dr. Jonathan Shenkin. “Delays in preventative care could result in kids developing more tooth decay,” he said. “The problem with tooth decay is that when it starts in childhood, it’s really the strongest indicator of risk into adulthood.”

It’s important to keep up with routine medical check-ups and preventative dental appointments as much as possible during the pandemic. And there also are daily hygiene practices you should prioritize to help keep those teeth and gums clean and healthy.

When should dental check-ups start?

You might think it’s fine to put off your child’s first dental appointment until they’ve got a few actual teeth to check. But the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry agree that kids should see their dentist when their first tooth appears or by their first birthday—whichever happens first—and every six months from then on.

That’s because even babies can develop tooth decay—and even though those baby teeth are but temporary placeholders for the permanent teeth that are yet to come, decay in primary teeth can mean a higher risk for decay in permanent teeth, according to the American Dental Association. And in severe cases, it can affect their overall health.

Brushing at home

In between those regular check-up appointments, at-home dental hygiene is critical—and challenging. There’s a reason why there are endless tips, songs, and apps to help parents convince small children to brush their teeth twice a day. And that reason is because two minutes (the recommended brushing time) can feel like an eternity when a small child and a toothbrush are involved.

However, if you start when their baby teeth first begin to emerge—or even when their smile is nothing but gums—you can develop a consistent routine early on. (Before the teeth emerge, a soft washcloth with warm water will suffice—consult with your dentist about when to switch to a soft-bristled child’s size toothbrush.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry now both recommended using a toothpaste with fluoride as soon as the teeth come through—but don’t overdo it. The recommended amount is probably even less than you think: a tiny smear (the size of a grain of rice) until age three, and a pea-sized amount for kids ages three to six. Until you can teach them to spit it out, angle their mouth down so the toothpaste can dribble into the sink or onto a washcloth.

Time of day is also critical: After breakfast and before bedtime are the ideal times to help kids brush their teeth because that keeps them clean for the bulk of the day. It’s helpful to remember that the last thing that should touch a child’s teeth before they go to bed is their toothbrush (i.e., a post-brushing bottle will undo the good you’ve just done).

Diet is also an important component of at-home dental hygiene, as CNN reports:

That starts with a diet that limits sugar, which feeds the harmful bacteria that cause tooth decay. “The only drink (kids) should be drinking during the day is water, and maybe milk,” Shenkin said.

It’s best to avoid sugary beverages entirely, he said, but if your child does drink one, the timing matters. “If you’re going to have it, have it with a meal.”

The two-teeth-touching rule for flossing

You probably already realize that kids also have to floss, too, but if you’re unsure when the flossing needs to start, it’s simple—as soon as they have at least two teeth that are touching. Until the teeth are touching, a toothbrush is sufficient in swiping most of the plaque away. Once a couple of teeth are right next door to each other, though, it’s time to pull out the floss.

While they’re learning (or while you’re still doing it for them), you might prefer to use a pre-threaded flosser. They’re much easier to grip and control than a usual strand of floss. However, they create more waste, so as soon as you can switch to regular floss, Stanford Children’s Health suggests trying either the “spool method” or the “loop method.”