When the toddler came to her office, 4 of his 16 teeth were so decayed, they required dental crowns.
Although this case may sound shocking, it's not rare, says Beverly Largent, DMD, the Paducah, Ky., dentist who cared for the child. She tells parents it's crucial to care for baby teeth. "You need to brush from the first tooth," says Largent, past president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
In fact, tooth decay -- although largely preventable with good care -- is one of the most common chronic diseases of children ages 6 to 11 and teens ages 12 to 19. Tooth decay is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. By kindergarten age, more than 40% of kids have tooth decay.
Neglecting baby teeth is not the only misstep parents can make when it comes to their child's early oral health.
Here's your 7-step game plan.
Start Oral Care Early
Your child should see a dentist by the time he or she is a year old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
Getting preventive care early saves money in the long run, according to a report published by the CDC. The report found that costs for dental care were nearly 40% lower over a five-year period for children who got dental care by age one compared to those who didn't go to the dentist until later.
Teach the Brush & Floss Habit
Dental visits are just part of the plan, of course. Tooth brushing is also crucial from the start. "A lot of people think they don't have to brush baby teeth," Largent says. If your baby has even one tooth, it's time to start tooth brushing. "If there's just one tooth, you can use gauze."
Even before your baby has teeth, you can gently brush the gums, using water on a soft baby toothbrush, or clean them with a soft washcloth.
Once there are additional teeth, Largent tells parents to buy infant toothbrushes that are very soft. Brushing should be done twice daily using a fluoridated toothpaste.
Flossing should begin when two teeth touch each other. Ask your dentist to show you the right flossing techniques and schedules, Largent says.
Also ask for your dentist's advice on when to start using mouthwash. "I advise parents to wait until the child can definitely spit the mouthwash out," says Mary Hayes, DDS, a pediatric dentist in Chicago and consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. "Mouthwash is a rinse and not a beverage."
So how long until Junior can be responsible for brushing his own teeth? "[Parents] have to clean the teeth until children are able to tie their shoes or write in cursive," says Largent.
During dental visits, ask your dentist if your child's teeth need fluoride protection or a dental sealant.
And remember, the most important time to brush and floss is just before bedtime. No food or drink, except water, should be permitted until the next morning. This allows clean teeth to re-mineralize during the night, from the minerals in the saliva and toothpaste.