Has your toddler had his or her first dental visit yet? You may think it’s too early. Perhaps you think your child doesn’t have enough teeth yet, or that he or she is too young to see a dentist. Even though baby teeth are eventually lost, there are still many reasons to keep them healthy. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children have an initial checkup at the dentist’s office by the time they reach a year old, or within six months of the eruption of their first tooth, because dental decay can begin as soon as the first teeth appear.
Besides tooth decay, there are a number of other problems that can affect the oral health of young children, including thumb sucking, tongue thrusting, lip sucking, and early tooth loss.
Why Baby Teeth are Important
Your young child’s primary (baby) teeth have a significant role to play in his or her overall health and development. Preventing decay and keeping primary teeth in place until they are lost naturally helps children with:
- Chewing properly to maintain good nutrition
- Proper speech development
- Saving space for permanent teeth
- Having a healthy smile and feeling good about the way they look
Besides taking your toddler to that first visit and regular dental visits afterward, you can also keep an eye out for some of common problems.
Baby Bottle Tooth Decay
When a baby’s teeth are in frequent contact with sugars from drinks, he or she can develop baby bottle tooth decay. Also called early childhood caries, nursing caries, and nursing bottle syndrome, baby bottle tooth decay can be caused by too much exposure to fruit juices, milk, formula, fruit juice diluted with water, sugar water, or any other sweet drink. If breastfed infants fall asleep with unswallowed milk in their mouth, they are also at risk for tooth decay. Bacteria in the mouth feed on the sugars, causing tooth decay. Decayed teeth are painful and cause problems with chewing and eating. If the teeth are decayed enough to be damaged or destroyed, then there is no space holder for the permanent teeth yet to come, and the result could be crooked teeth, a misaligned bite or crowded teeth. Badly decayed teeth can lead to an abscessed tooth, and the infection could spread to other parts of your child’s body. Your toddler’s dentist and pediatrician can both provide recommendations and tips for preventing baby bottle tooth decay.
Despite what Grandma says, thumb sucking is a normal and healthy part of child development. Sucking their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers, or toys gives babies and toddlers a sense of emotional security and comfort. Thumb sucking doesn’t become a dental problem until your child’s permanent teeth start to emerge. If he or she is still thumb sucking frequently and for long periods of time, the permanent teeth that are coming in can be pushed out of alignment, causing an overbite, speech issues, and other problems.
Encouragement, positive reinforcement and rewards can help children decide on their own to stop their thumb sucking. Because thumb sucking is a security mechanism, negative reinforcement is generally ineffective; it makes children defensive and they will just suck their thumb even more. If your best efforts are unsuccessful in getting your child to stop thumb sucking, there are dental appliances that can help. Cemented to the upper teeth, these appliances sit on the roof of the mouth and make it harder and less pleasurable to suck the thumb.
Thrusting the top of the tongue forward against the lips is a habit some children practice while swallowing. Just like thumb sucking, tongue thrusting also puts pressure against the front teeth, pushing them out of alignment, creating an overbite, and interfering with proper speech development. If you notice symptoms of tongue thrusting, consult a speech-language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can help your child increase the strength of the chewing muscles and develop a new swallowing pattern, as well as work with him or her on any resulting speech issues.
A variation of thumb sucking behavior, lip sucking involves repeatedly holding the lower lip beneath the upper front teeth. Children may suck their lower lip only, or they might combine the lip sucking with thumb sucking. The resulting dental problems are the same as those presented by thumb sucking, however, and you’ll need to take the same steps for stopping it as you would for thumb sucking.
Improper Dental Hygiene
Starting with infants, dental hygiene can and should be practiced. For infants, you can use a soft wet cloth to wipe their gums after feedings to reduce bacteria on their gums. As teeth begin to emerge, use a baby toothbrush and toothpaste to gently clean teeth at night. Toddlers may want to demonstrate independence by brushing their own teeth, but you should always follow it with your own brushing. Even as children enter elementary school, they should still be instructed and monitored while brushing their teeth.
Keeping your toddler’s baby teeth is important for so many reasons. Make sure you schedule regular dental visits, practice excellent oral hygiene, limit their sugar intake (including beverages) and use positive methods to encourage the elimination of habits that can damage their permanent teeth.