WEDNESDAY, Feb. 11, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The teeth in a young child's mouth may not be permanent, but they require as much care as an adult's -- and neglecting them can have lifelong consequences.
That's why dentists recommend brushing a child's teeth from the minute the first one comes in -- and maybe even before that.
February is National Children's Dental Health Month, and dentists are taking the opportunity to promote a strong dental cleanliness routine from infancy onward.
About 20 percent of children have tooth decay by age 3, says Dr. Mary Hayes, a Chicago dentist and a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association. And just because the teeth are temporary doesn't preclude a child from suffering the pain of cavities.
"The primary molars in the back that children get between ages 2 or 3 are in the mouth until the child is 11 to 14," Hayes says. "Temporary is a long time. It's not just a few months."
Those baby teeth also help guide the permanent teeth into position, explains Dr. Jeff Phillips, a pediatric dentist from Salem, Ore. Any disease in the baby teeth, including mouth or tooth infections, can lead to expensive orthodonture later in life, he says.
Parents might want to consider getting their infants used to having their teeth cleaned by running a wet washcloth around their mouths before the first tooth comes in, Hayes says.
"You can clean their gum pads," she says. "You want to get the child used to the idea that manipulation of the mouth is part of their cleaning routine."
If not then, parents should definitely start cleaning their child's teeth from the very first one. "As soon as a tooth comes into the mouth, it needs to be cleansed," Phillips says.
The American Dental Association (ADA) says parents should clean their infant child's teeth with a child-sized toothbrush and a little water.
Phillips says a cloth can be used as well. "A lot of pediatricians are telling people to get in the habit of using a wet washcloth at bath time, prior to bathing," he says.
Parents might find it easier to clean a young child's teeth if they do it in a more comfortable setting than the bathroom, Phillips says. He suggests cleaning their teeth on a couch or bed if it helps settle them down.
Parents also can sing a song or count while they are cleaning their child's teeth to help keep them distracted, Phillips says.
Flossing should begin when two of the child's teeth begin to touch.
There's more parents can -- and must -- do. They should encourage their children to drink from a cup by their first birthday. Research has shown that extended use of a baby bottle can increase a child's risk of tooth decay.
Once a child is 2 years old, parents can begin using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush. At that age, they are able to spit out the toothpaste and not swallow it.
Children have to be as old as 6 or 7 before they can take over their own brushing chores. That's when they will have the fine motor skills necessary to do an adequate job.
"When they can write an entire page of cursive, they have the motor skills to brush their own teeth," Phillips says.
The ADA recommends a child's first visit to the dentist take place within six months of the eruption of the first tooth, and no later than their first birthday.
"You want to get good advice as soon as possible," Hayes says. "If I get good advice to parents early, I'm less likely to see problems in their children later on." After the first visit, parents should schedule regular cleanings on six-month intervals.
Besides brushing, parents can also ensure their children's dental health by watching what they eat. Breads, pastas and sugary snacks or drinks, in particular, should be avoided as often as possible, with brushings as soon as possible after they've been eaten, Hayes says.
"While you're satisfying your child's taste buds, you are allowing the bacteria that causes tooth decay in your child's mouth to flourish," she says.
Phillips says parents should check to see if the water in their home is fluoridated. If it isn't, they should ask their doctor or dentist to prescribe a fluoride supplement for their young child. After age 5, children can use off-the-shelf fluoride mouth rinses.
Parents also might want to ask their child's dentist about sealants, which provide a thin protective barrier that shields the chewing surface of back teeth against tooth decay, Phillips says.
For more information on children and dental care, visit the National Library of Medicine. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry has a paper on the dangers of baby bottle tooth decay. To read it, you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.