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Control the Sippy Cup

A sippy cup helps kids move from a bottle to a regular cup. Many kids keep the cup with them all day. "Prolonged use of a sippy cup," Largent says, "can cause decay on the back of the front teeth," if the beverages are sugary.

Ditch the Binky by 2 or 3

Pacifiers used in the first year of life may actually help prevent sudden infant death syndrome. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests using a pacifier when putting your infant to sleep but not reinserting once baby drifts off. Long-term use can affect how the top and bottom teeth line up (the "bite") or can affect the shape of the mouth.

"Pacifiers are for infants, not for toddlers," Largent says. She discourages long-term use of even the "orthodontically correct" pacifiers and recommends stopping their use by age 2. Talk to your doctor if the habit continues beyond age 3.

Beware of Medicines

Children's medications can be flavored and sugary, Hayes says. If they stick on the teeth, the risk of decay goes up. Children on medications for chronic conditions such as asthma and heart problems often have a higher decay rate, she says.

Antibiotics and some asthma medications can cause an overgrowth of candida (yeast), which can lead to a fungal infection called oral thrush. Signs are creamy, curd-like patches on the tongue or inside the mouth.

Talk to your dentist about how often to brush for a child on long-term medications, Hayes says. It could be as often as four times a day.

Stand Firm on Oral Hygiene

If kids put up a fuss when it comes time to brush, floss, and rinse, don't let them off the hook. Let them know they don't have a choice.

"It has to be done," Hayes says. But she has tips to help parents coax reluctant kids to do the job -- or to get little ones to let their parents help.

  • Be patient. Kids can start brushing their teeth with help from a grown-up around 2 or 3. But they may not be ready to go it alone until about age 6, Hayes says. "Kids can brush on their own when they can tie their shoes or write in cursive," Largent says. Flossing skills don't get good until later, probably age 10.
  • Don’t wait too late. Try brushing and flossing and rinsing, if advised, when your child isn't too tired. You may get more cooperation from her.
  • Get buy-in. Involve kids in an age-appropriate way. Kids 5 or older can pick their own toothpaste from options you approve. 
  • Motivate. A younger child may gladly brush for a sticker, for instance, or gold stars on a chart. Or make it a group activity. Kids might be more likely to join in if they see the grown-ups brushing.
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