Does Your Kid Need Dental Work? Start Here

Does Your Kid Need Dental Work? Start Here

Raise your hand if you actually visit the dentist every six months.

We thought so.

But we know that when it comes to our kid's health--including dental health--we have calendar reminders set for the next five years.

After all, we watched those teeth grow from nothing, and we have a vested interest in keeping them shipshape.


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We always say that staying healthy is worth the price, and that goes double for our kids.

Dental health isn't so easy, though, between the bubblegum and the soda and that patented kids-only "brushing" strategy wherein your child simply eats the toothpaste (Berry Sparkle flavor) off the brush and moves on to more exciting things.

Plus, certain dental bills can really rack up the high fees (hello, braces!) if they aren't covered by insurance, so it's best to take care of little teeth as much as possible before they become a big issue.

So what's actually hurting your children's teeth, and what can you let slide? How do you get a kid to approach the dentist's office with an emotion other than terror? And what's the one thing that makes the biggest difference in your kids' dental health?

We'll tell you.

How Should I Clean My Baby's Teeth (and When Should I Start)?

The American Association of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that you begin cleaning your child's teeth and gums as early as possible, using a soft-bristled toothbrush or a wet cloth once per day. (There are infant toothbrushes sold specifically for this purpose.) Once teeth appear, you should begin using toothpaste with fluoride, such as Tom's of Maine. Note that children should not swallow fluoride, so if your child insists on eating the toothpaste, hold off on the fluoride for a bit, or give them very little.

For children under 2, use only a "smear" of toothpaste; children ages 2-5 should use a pea-sized amount. You should be brushing for children under age 5, who generally don't brush effectively.

When Does My Child Need to Visit the Dentist?

According to the AAPD, your child should visit the dentist when his or her first tooth appears, but no later than his or her first birthday. Dr. Lee Gold, of Five Points Dental Soho in New York City, says that many families bring their child in before it's necessary, just to get a feel for the office. "A lot of time, patients come in and sit on a parent’s lap just to make it a good experience, to get used to being in the chair," he says.

How Can I Make the Dentist Fun Instead of Scary?

Dr. Gold says the most important thing a parent can do to make his or her child's experience with the dentist a positive one is to keep from projecting fears onto a young child. "Parents are afraid, and then they transfer that to the child," he explains. "Tell your child to expect that the dentist will take some pictures of her teeth and will brush and count her teeth, and that she'll get to go for a ride in the chair." (Plus, mentioning the fun swag most dentists give out afterward can't hurt!)

Do you hate going to the dentist? Do rubber gloves creep you out? Does the sound of the drill terrify you? Then maybe you should have your partner, or mother or sister, take the kids to the dentist.

If you're on the hunt for a great pediatric dentist but don't have any friends with children to ask for recommendations, start here.

Which Foods Are Hurting Their Teeth (and Which Aren't)?

Steering clear of sugar is a no-brainer, but the AAPD recommends limiting nutrient-poor starches as well. Dr. Gold adds that one of the biggest culprits he sees is fruit juice. Children toting bottles of juice are carrying around a constant stream of sugar that's nearly as harmful as sticky candy like Swedish Fish. More surprisingly, Dr. Gold also says that milk can do more harm than good at bedtime. "Milk has sugar in it, so if you send your child to bed with juice or milk, they're sleeping with sugar [in their teeth] all night. A bedtime bottle should contain water and nothing else," he explains.

As far as foods that will keep their teeth healthy, it's the usual suspects: vegetables, cheese and protein. If you're planning to give your child sugarless gum (which can help protect and strengthen teeth), BabyCenter recommends holding off until at least age 4, when children can grasp the concept of chewing without swallowing, and starting with sticks of gum, which are softer than balls.

How Can I Tell If My Child Is Having Dental Problems?

Your child may complain of pain, or of sensitivity to cold foods such as ice cream, Dr. Gold tells us. "He might say that it hurts when he bites down," said the dentist. "He will feel something similar to what we would feel--the trick is getting him to tell you."

What Do I Do if Something Is Wrong With My Child's Teeth?

There are two common problems that you might encounter with a healthy child's teeth: a toothache, or a tooth falling out (naturally or otherwise!).

For a toothache, the AAPD directs you to rinse the irritated area with warm salt water and place a cold compress on the child's face, then give the child acetaminophen for any pain, not aspirin. If the pain persists, see a dentist as soon as possible.

If your child's tooth falls out, don't panic. "Things in the mouth should heal within a week to ten days," says Dr. Gold. "The worst thing to promote healing is anything acidic, like orange juice, and the best thing is water." If it's a tooth that falls out naturally, it can't hurt to rinse with some diluted peroxide (half peroxide/half water, and don't swallow it!), but if there has been an accident and it's bleeding, apply pressure with a clean cloth. If it's a front tooth, your dentist probably can't do much, but she'll have to put a space maintainer like a metal spacer in if it's a molar, just to keep teeth from shifting and interfering with adult molars.

Where Will I Have to Spend the Big Bucks at the Dentist?

According to Dr. Gold, the most expensive procedures you might encounter are fillings for cavities or crowns (if there's a really deep cavity but for whatever reason the dentist can't pull a tooth). "Most insurances cover children's dental costs like adults, meaning that cleanings are covered, and sometimes procedures like sealants," he explains.

Sealants are pre-emptive fillings that "plug the holes" in a tooth to lessen the chance of cavities. They're typically done when the tooth comes in so that it isn’t exposed to bacteria, but they're not permanent--how long they last depends on factors such as the amount of sticky foods your child eats.

And then, of course, there are braces, which cost about $5,000 to $7,000 and usually aren't covered by insurance. Braces are put on by orthodontists, not dentists, but your dentist might refer you to an orthodontist when your child is around age 8 if it looks like he or she might need either braces or preemptive orthodontic work, like spacers, retainers or palate expanders to lessen the time they'll spend in actual braces.

What's the Key to Keeping My Child's Teeth Healthy?

It's an easy one, says Dr. Gold. "Regular checkups and cleanings are the best thing you can do for your child's teeth. Getting them into a good routine and being comfortable at the dentist's office will make everything easier for you. The best money is spent on prevention, not treatment."


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