The toddler years of a child is an exciting time for parents. It’s simply a joy watching your child grow every day. It is also a period of many first experiences, both for the child and the parents. How then should we as parents introduce our toddlers to oral hygiene, protect their oral health and set them out for a lifetime of healthy and beautiful smiles?
Avoiding Milk Bottle Decay
One of the most common reasons for severe rampant tooth decay in toddlers is the ‘milk bottle decay’, where the toddlers sleep with and suckle on their milk bottles overnight. This results in prolonged contact between the milk and the toddler’s teeth, during which the milk breaks down to sugars. Decay causing bacteria then acts on the sugars and dissolve the toddler’s teeth. This is why many pediatricians and dentists recommend parents to wean their toddlers off the milk bottle by 1 year of age and possibly move on to using ‘sippy’ cups.
Good Oral Hygiene Habits
It is good to start your toddlers on a good oral hygiene regime early. This would include having your toddlers brush their teeth twice a day using an appropriate toothbrush and toothpaste. While we know that toddlers do not have sufficient manual dexterity to brush their own teeth well, it is still a good idea to have them brush their teeth themselves once before the parents check and brush for them a second time.
Using the Appropriate Toothbrush
There are many toddler specific toothbrushes available in the market. The common design features are a large, easy to grip handle and a small brush head to reach all surfaces of their baby teeth.
Using the Appropriate Toothpaste
For toddlers, it is recommended to start with a fluoride-free toothpaste. Once they are used to brushing their teeth or having their teeth brushed, parents can introduce low fluoride toothpastes that are specially formulated for children. It is important to note that the children should not swallow the toothpaste. Fluoride enriched toothpastes are more effective in preventing tooth decay than fluoride-free variety.
It is unfortunate that high sugar intake is the primary cause of tooth decay in children. Most toddlers are naturally attracted to sugary foods; this is why baby milk formulas are often very sweet. It does not help too that some caregivers use sweets as a ‘bribe’ to get the toddler to behave. It is best to restrict the number of sweets given to toddlers and to wipe the baby teeth with a damp cloth (if brushing is not possible) after milk feeds.
Toddlers are easily impressionable and want ‘to be like’ mummy and daddy. When toddlers develop tooth decay, many parents will complain that their toddlers do not want to brush their teeth or that they do brush their teeth but are ‘done in 10 seconds’. A tip that is very effective is to have the toddlers witness mummy and daddy routinely carrying out good oral hygiene habits. Many children with decay free teeth have daily ‘brushing times’ with the parents.
Prolonged and sustained use of the pacifier into the toddler years can sometimes result in irreversible changes to your toddler’s oral structures. The extra pressures exerted on the oral structures during sucking mould the jaws into poor arch forms and cause teeth to become poorly aligned. Also, the longer your toddler has been using the pacifier, the harder it would be to wean him off it later. To wean your toddler off the pacifier, do try to examine why your toddler is dependent on it. Do they find comfort and suck on it when they are upset? The next time your toddler is upset, reach for him/her instead of the pacifier.
It is recommended by the Ministry of Health (Singapore) that toddlers should have their first dental check-up at 1 year old. This is to ensure that your toddler’s teeth are developing well and that there are no serious dental problems that require treatment. Regular dental visits to a toddler-friendly practice will habituate your toddlers to the dental office environment and make them look forward to fun teeth cleaning visits instead of being fearful. As always, prevention is better than cure.
Author: Dr Lim Min Min