During children’s dental visits, pediatric dentistry residents at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry wear brightly colored scrub caps gleaming with superheroes and cartoon characters, make balloon animal gifts for patients, and participate in socially distanced dance parties. These are a few of the many ways residents elicit excitement for dental visits and advocate for good oral health habits all throughout the year, but especially during the month of February.
In observance of National Children’s Dental Health Month, many pediatric dentists encourage parents to establish good oral hygiene habits with their children, educate them on the importance of oral health, schedule dental visits every six months, and make brushing and flossing a family affair.
Parents can get their kiddos excited about brushing teeth at home by playing songs while brushing, reading dentistry books, playing the role of a dentist, and brushing the teeth of their favorite toys/stuffed animals.
“Routines are invaluable because they form habits, and good habits are the building blocks for proper oral hygiene throughout childhood and into adulthood,” said Hillary Strassner, DDS, MPH, first-year pediatric dentistry resident.
Creating a reward system is also a great tool for establishing good habits. Parents can begin with a plain white toothbrush and after their child brushes twice a day for a month, reward them with a colored toothbrush. When they continue to brush twice a day for the next month and floss once a day, allow the child to choose their own toothbrush with a character on it.
Stickers and a reward chart can also be great tools. This not only makes brushing fun, but it establishes a routine.
These preventative measures result in no lost days in school due to dental infections and prevent tooth decay, which is the most common chronic disease of childhood, even more than asthma and diabetes.
“It’s really important to encourage caregivers, parents, and guardians to bring their kids in every six months, even if it’s just for a five- or 10-minute appointment. That experience and exposure make a really big difference, because it disassociates the dentist with fear and pain,” said Sarah Arafat, DDS, MPH, first-year resident. “If the responsibility is on the child to maintain their teeth at home, then during a check-up, we can just count teeth, rather than take the sugar bugs away. It’s a team approach.”
During visits, pediatric dentists also focus on the child’s overall health by doing a full head and neck, comprehensive exam, where they actually examine teeth last. By frequently attending appointments, health issues, such as enlarged tonsils, endocrine disorders, issues with hard and soft tissues, and more can be caught early. Routine visits are also important because primary “baby” teeth provide the foundation for permanent teeth. When children don’t take care of their baby teeth, this can lead to pain, infection, and poor oral hygiene habits.
“Healthy mouth equals a healthy body. The more you come to us, the more frequently we have regular, preventative treatment visits, and the healthier overall your child will be.” Arafat said.
Furthermore, establishing a dental home, where the entire family comes to the dentist every six months, keeps up with their recalls, flosses each day, and brushes twice a day creates a positive relationship between the patient, family, and provider. Since most children look up to their parents and older siblings, making oral health a family affair also allows children to feel comfortable and encouraged to take care of their teeth.
In a dental home, parents should also encourage drinking water and reducing sugar intake.
“A lot of parents think juice is good for their kids, since it’s fruit and the label may say 100% fruit. This is misleading, because these drinks have a lot of sugar; some have even as much as a soda,” said Rosangel Oropeza, DDS, first-year resident. “Focusing on water as pretty much the only thing that children drink, other than milk, reduces obesity, lowers the risk of diabetes, and increases overall health.”
Instead of giving them sugary orange juice, let them suck on an orange. Being able to feel the texture of the fruit will also advance their orofacial development.
Additional tips from Strassner include:
- Floss at least one time a day for two minutes;
- Use a soft-bristle toothbrush;
- Brush each morning and evening – at night is critical to remove the plaque and food particles from the teeth so the “sugar bugs” can’t use them to breakdown tooth structure while sleeping;
- Set alarms to establish a routine for brushing;
- For children under three years of age, use a smear or rice-size amount of toothpaste and for children three and over, use a pea-size amount of toothpaste.