1. Milk teeth are important
Yes, ultimately, your child’s milk teeth will fall out, but before they do, having strong, healthy teeth is essential. They play an obvious role in nutrition – chewing being one of the first steps in digestion – as well as in speech development. Additionally, they’re essential to the normal development of the jawbone and facial muscles.
Every time your child chews, this stimulates facial muscle and jaw development – the jaw development that ultimately creates the space needed for the adult teeth, explains Alisha Naidoo, dentist and lecturer at Wits School of Oral Health Sciences.
Yet another reason to look after them is that they act as space holders for the adult teeth. Removing a decaying milk tooth means that its neighbour could drift or tilt into the gap. When the adult tooth makes its way to the surface, it may consequently rotate, migrate to the wrong position, or even remain permanently buried beneath the gum. The long shot of all of this is expensive orthodontic treatment.
Also, your child’s smile is arguably his most engaging facial expression, and it can cause a dent in his confidence to flash blackened stumps rather than pearly whites in moments of mirth, advises Janet Gritzman, dentist and president of the Paedodontic Society of South Africa.
2. Dental hygiene
Dental hygiene should begin at birth, at the first bath, says Janet. Using a moistened soft gauze pad or moistened, clean cloth wrapped around the finger, gently wipe the gum pads of baby’s mouth as part of his daily bath routine.
3. Watch out for bottle- or breast- feeding caries
The breast or bottle may seem indispensable to your night-time routine. Nevertheless, after the first tooth emerges, all three paediatric dentistry associations – the British, American and the European – recommend weaning from night-time feeds that act as a sleep aid or to pacify, advises Alisha. When your baby falls asleep with a bottle or breast in his mouth, the milk pools in the mouth and coats the teeth. Instead of swallowing the milk and ‘washing’ the teeth with saliva, the primary decay forming bacteria in the mouth – Streptococcus mutans – then changes the milk sugars (lactose) into acid. This in turn dissolves the enamel of the teeth, causing decay, explains dentist Marlon Chetty. The arrival of his first tooth, around six months, often coincides with the introduction of solids.
Now that baby stays fuller for longer, sleep time can be gradually separated from feeding time. Six months of age is also a good time to start introducing a cup and persisting with it until your baby becomes comfortable with handling and drinking from it – somewhere between 12 to 14 months of age. But if your child has developed what seems to be an unbreakable bottle habit, fill it with only fresh water, recommends Marlon.
4. See your dentist before your baby turns one
Fear is the number one problem when it comes to working with toddlers, so all paediatric dentistry associations recommend that your child’s first visit to the dentist should be within six months of their first tooth emerging, or by their first birthday – even if your child has good, healthy teeth.
An early visit; rather than a visit because of pain and tooth decay, offers your child the opportunity to get used to the dental environment. It also gives your dentist a chance to build rapport with your child, which in turn makes it easier to do dental procedures, shares Janet. Thereafter, children should see the dentist every six months.
Regular appointments will ensure that problems are picked up early. Please don’t threaten your children with a trip to the dentist, stresses Janet. Making the dentist into the “bad guy” only makes check-ups trickier.
5. If you suspect decay, act quickly!
Pain, sensitivity to hot. cold or sweet foods; and pressure sensitivity, are all the signs of tooth decay warns Marlon. Dental decay, an infection of the tooth caused by bacteria, will continue to get bigger and spread from tooth to tooth, if left untreated. If you suspect tooth decay or have noticed white-spot discolouration (a precursor to decay), it’s important that restorative work is done as soon as possible, regardless of your toddler’s age.