SUNDAY, Nov. 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- The dental health of Americans is improving as people take better care of their teeth. But that encouraging trend doesn't extend to some of the country's most vulnerable individuals -- children.
Studies have found that baby tooth decay is on the rise. One federal report found that decay in baby teeth among 2- to 5-year-olds increased from 24 percent to 28 percent from 1988 to 2004.
This decay can have unwanted lasting effects on a child's overall heath, ranging from impairment of permanent teeth to systemic illness caused by infection from bacteria in the mouth.
Jean Connor, a dental hygienist in Cambridge, Mass., and president of the American Dental Hygienists Association, said parents need to teach their children that a clean mouth is just as desirable as clean ears or hands or feet.
"It's just another part of the body that must be kept clean," Connor said. "If you have a dirty mouth, you're carrying bacteria and infections around."
Baby teeth are often thought of as disposable or temporary. But if left to decay, those teeth can fill the mouth with bacteria that could harm the permanent teeth as they come in. And if baby teeth are pulled early due to decay, the permanent teeth behind them can come in crooked.
Oral cleanliness can come from a variety of techniques. Parents should teach their kids how to brush and floss and also how to keep their mouth clean by watching what they eat.
This care can start even before a child is born, said Diann Bomkamp, a dental hygienist in St. Louis, and president-elect of the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA).
Expecting mothers can give their unborn children an advantage by taking special care of their dental health during pregnancy, Bomkamp said.
"If the pregnant woman does not have good dental care, she could have more of the decay-producing bacteria in her mouth, and it's very likely she could pass these bugs on to her child," Bomkamp said.
Once the child is born, parents should start keeping the mouth clean even before the first baby tooth has erupted.
The ADHA recommends thoroughly cleaning an infant's gums after each feeding with a water-soaked infant washcloth or gauze pad to stimulate the gum tissue and remove food.
"Even before they have teeth, you can clean out their mouths and get the kids used to the idea of it," Connor said.
When the baby's teeth begin to erupt, parents should brush them gently with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush using a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste.
At age 2 or 3, a parent can begin to teach their child proper brushing techniques. However, the child will need help with brushing and flossing up through age 7 or 8. By then, they will have developed the dexterity to do it alone.
Parents also should be cautious about inadvertently sharing their own mouth's bacteria with their child, through even the most seemingly innocuous behavior.
"Decay bugs can be transmitted through sharing food and drink, through sharing a toothbrush or sharing utensils," Bomkamp said. "Even blowing on food, your saliva can be transmitted to the child."
Watching what children eat also can help protect them from developing cavities or large amounts of decay bacteria in their mouths. This includes making sure that kids are fed regular meals throughout the day, especially breakfast, to keep them from feeling the need to snack on unhealthy foods.
One recent study found that the odds of decay in baby teeth were greater in the children with poor eating habits. Children who don't eat breakfast every day had higher levels of tooth decay, the study found, as did those who don't eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
"If they're eating several snacks a day, they probably aren't eating foods that are good for them," Bomkamp said.
Also, don't let a young child go to bed with a bottle, Bomkamp said, and avoid allowing them to run around with sippy cups filled with sugary juices.
Another potential problem is the increased use of bottled water, she said. Tap water in almost all U.S. cities contains fluoride, which helps prevent tooth decay. "Most bottled water doesn't have the fluoride levels we'd like to see," Bomkamp said.
Dental hygienists also urge parents to get their kids in to see a dentist as early as possible, within six months of the eruption of their first baby tooth or by their first birthday.
"Parents often don't think to take their child to the dentist until it's too late to prevent problems," Connor said.
To learn more, visit the American Dental Hygienists Association.