Learn how to help kids give cavities the brush

Dental hygienist Barbara DuRegger cleans the teeth of Camdyn Lawson, 3, who is wearing sunglasses to shield her eyes from the bright overhead lights.

brenda rindge

Camdyn Lawson, 3, climbs up into the reclining dentist chair and lies down, her knees bent and her hands folded across her tummy.

Hygienist Barbara DuRegger makes her feel comfortable, telling her about her friends who have been to the dentist lately and asking about her day at preschool. She offers her sunglasses to keep the bright lights out of the pre-schooler's eyes.

Camdyn is a pro at this. She's been to the Coastal Kids Dental office in Hanahan before and she's comfortable with the procedure.

Her mother, Melinda Lawson, worked for an orthodontist for years before Camdyn was born, so she knows the importance of making sure that her daughter has good oral hygiene. She even makes sure the little girl flosses regularly.

For Camdyn, the visit with pediatric dentist Dr. Isabel Driggers, owner and founder of Coastal Kids, is more about getting through the necessities so she can get to the extras: the trip to the treasure chest for a prize, a new toothbrush and a "Cars" sticker.

The Surgeon General has identified tooth decay as the most common childhood disease -- five times more common than asthma, four times more common than early childhood obesity, and 20 times more common than diabetes.

And we now know that oral health is linked to myriad other diseases later in life, including stroke and heart disease.

Yet only half of all children have ever visited a dentist, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

And tooth decay in children is on the rise, according to a 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As manyas 28 percent of children ages 2 to 5 have cavities in their baby teeth.

February is National Children's Dental Health Month and today is Tooth Fairy Day.

The ADA's themes for this year's National Children's Dental Health Month are "A Healthy Smile? It's Easy to Find! Remember to Brush & Floss Everyday!" and "A Healthy Smile Looks Good Up Close."

As for the Tooth Fairy, well, there seems to be some mystery around the origin of her special day, but that's befitting of a fairy. And it's a mystery why one kid gets 50 cents per tooth while his neighbor gets $5, right?

Nonetheless, she plays an important part in just about every child's life.

To acknowledge these occasions, here are some important facts about children's dental health from the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry:

Q: What determines a child's oral health?

A: Four things: diet, oral hygiene, tooth makeup and saliva, which helps rinse away food and bacteria, according to the ADA. Parents can control two of these factors: eating and cleaning.

Q: Why are baby teeth important?

A: Baby teeth help a child learn proper chewing and biting, help with speech development and provide the space for the permanent teeth.

Q: When should baby teeth fall out?

A: Barring accidents or other trauma, kids typically lose 20 baby teeth between ages 6 and 12. (It's a wonder the Tooth Fairy hasn't declared bankruptcy.)

Q: When should I start bushing my child's teeth?

A: You should clean your child's gums with a soft infant toothbrush or cloth and water from the time he's born, Dr. Driggers says. Do it after each feeding.

Q: When should we use toothpaste?

A: When the first tooth appears. For children under 2, use a "smear" of toothpaste. From ages 2-5, use a peasize amount. Children should spit out excess toothpaste after brushing. If they are too young to spit, rinse or wipe their mouth.

Q: What kind of toothpaste should kids use?

A: "It's OK to give fluoride right away," Driggers says. Water with fluoride is the number one way to prevent tooth decay. Look for toothpastes with the American Dental Association's Seal of Acceptance, which means it has been evaluated for safety and effectiveness.

Q: What kind of toothbrush should I use?

A: Those with gimmicks are fine. Battery-powered spin brushes, brushes with built-in timers or in the shape of a cartoon character can make brushing teeth more fun. But again, look for the ADA Seal of Acceptance.

Q: How often should my child brush and for how long?

A: At least twice a day -- morning and night -- and for at least two minutes each time.

"Brushing at night is more important because otherwise those harmful acids will sit on teeth overnight," Driggers says.

Q: When should my child start flossing?

A: The American Dental Association recommends flossing your child's teeth as soon as two teeth touch.

Q: Can my child brush for himself?

A: By age 6 or 7, children should be able to brush their own teeth twice a day but often require supervision until about age 10 or 11, the AAPD says.

"Parents often think kids can do it themselves, but they can't do a good job," Driggers says. "Sometimes even teens need supervision. I suggest that parents let their kids brush in the morning, and they do it at night."

Q: When should my child start seeing a dentist?

A: "Most people think they don't have to bring their children to the dentist until they are 3 or 4," Driggers says. "But they should start years before that."

The AAPD recommends that all children should see a dentist within six months of the eruption of the first tooth or no later than his or her first birthday. Pediatric dentists have special training to work with children.

Q: What causes cavities?

A: Sugar and starch combine with normal bacteria to create acids that are harmful to teeth. Eating regular healthy meals and drinking water will help prevent acids from settling on the teeth.

The longer children's teeth are exposed to the food, the more damage is done. When kids sip on sugary beverages, they're exposed to a higher risk of decay.

"People worry about food, but drinks are much worse for teeth," Driggers says. "It's the frequency of sugar, not the amount that counts, and when kids carry around a sippy cup all day, their teeth are exposed to sugar over long periods. My 2- and 3-year-old sons drink no juice at all, only water, because I see so many cavities from juice and sports drinks."

Q: Can a child "catch" cavities?

A: Parents and others can pass germs that cause cavities from utensils, cups and other objects, so they should be washed thoroughly before sharing with children, according to the ADA.

Q: What are sealants and should my child have them?

A: Sealants are a protective plastic coating applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth, where decay often starts. They act as a barrier, protecting against decay-causing bacteria. According to the 2007 CDC study, 38 percent of children and teens ages 12 to 19 years had dental sealants.

Q: Where can I get more information?

A: The ADA (www.ada.org) and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (www.aapd.org).

Brenda Rindge can be reached at 937-5713.