The British and American Dental Associations advise that a child’s first birthday is the time for a first visit to the dentist. Although many teeth may still be missing at that time, the objective of gong to the dentist is to educate parents, establish a rapport with the child and work towards prevention. A majority of parents, however, take their child to the dentist when the child is suffering either from an advanced state of tooth decay or more commonly, is in acute discomfort.
This is the most possible time for a child to visit a dental professional. By this time the child requires radical treatment thus creating conditions for dental anxiety and phobia. I can happily claim there are more anxious adults than there are children, a most adults were not given gentle dental care in their childhood. Many paediatricians routinely refer children to us with the knowledge that oral health is an important part of the child’s overall general health.
Grazing pretty much like cows is how I describe the eating habits of kids today. Snacking on mostly soft, often sweet junk food and fizzy drinks throughout the day is the most common reason for tooth decay. Parents should realize that carbohydrates, whether sweet (candy or cookies) or salty will cause decay, and frequency is more important than amount. I would much rather a child munch three Mars bars and six biscuits at one go and brush immediately after, than to have these spaced over five hours with no cleaning. Access to unlimited carbohydrates contributes to the demographic fact that children from elite households suffer from more tooth decay than kids from impoverished homes.
Brushing twice a day is essential in lowering the germ count and night-time brushing is far more important. Most kids, and even most adults, brush in the mornings only. Remember, you brush for others in the morning (to display clean teeth and avoid bad breath!) and for yourself at nigh, because decay happens fastest whilst sleeping. Tooth brushing (and NOT toothpaste) is the single most important factor in avoiding dental disease. Yet, the most common question from parents is which toothpaste to use. Parents must brush, or help them brush at least until the age of six. The child’s dentist can demonstrate the best technique.
Schools are the ultimate venue for mass awareness campaigns, yet remain relatively under-utilized. Some of my life’s defining moments have been spent in schools educating receptive children on oral health and I have felt the biggest impact is on kids in classes .
The information should not just be passed on to the child it should also be reinforced by teachers.
Good (and bad) habits are acquired at an early age. Encouraging brushing or rinsing after school snacks has been found to result in far fewer levels of decay. Schools should organize programmes not only for children, but also for their parents. Even today, parents of 18 years old thank me for the information that they received when the child was in nursery 15 years ago.
A last point that cannot be over emphasized is the impact of genes. If the parents (or ever the wider family) are decay prone, the child will probably be too. But decay prone does not necessarily mean getting more decay. Better levels of oral care at home and at the dentist’s can eliminate that genetic predisposition and result in healthy mouths and beautiful smiles.
By Dr. Shahid Mitha: The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Pediatric Dentistry, Fatima Jinnah Dental College Karachi.