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Dental Health for Young Children
By Ann Haffner, Parents as Teachers National Center

Even a toothless grin requires care. Parents as Teachers National Center offers tips to parents on helping their children keep that winning smile from the first day on.

Why dental health is important

It's never too early to start caring for one's teeth. Since tooth decay can begin as soon as teeth first appear, parents are encouraged to start caring for their children's teeth and gums early.

" Children need strong and healthy teeth to chew food and to be able to speak clearly.

" Primary teeth or 'baby teeth' hold spaces and serve as a guide for the permanent teeth that will come later. If a baby tooth decays and is removed early, the permanent teeth may drift into an empty space and come in crooked.

" The most important tip for parents is to be a good role model. Children are more likely to pick-up a good habit if they see their parents practicing and enjoying the behavior, too. Good oral hygiene benefits everyone.

What parents can do to help

" Before your baby's teeth push through the gums, get in the habit of wiping her gums with a damp washcloth or gauze pad after each feeding. Not only will this keep out bacteria but it may also help alleviate some 'teething pains'. This will also help you and your child get in the habit of keeping a clean mouth, leading to less resistance as the child gets older.

" Avoid putting your baby to bed with a bottle of anything other than water. Milk can pool around the baby's teeth and the sugars can cause decay. To avoid spreading germs and bacteria, be sure pacifiers are kept clean and never dipped into sweet liquids or licked by someone other than the child.

" Once the teeth have erupted (usually between 6 to 12 months of age), start brushing your child's teeth and gums with a child-size soft bristle toothbrush and water twice a day. When your child is old enough to be able to spit, begin adding a pea-size amount of toothpaste to the brush. Flossing should start when the teeth begin to touch. To help your toddler stay still while cleaning her teeth sing a song or tell a story to distract her or make a game out of brushing teeth to make the situation more enjoyable.

" Feed your child a healthy diet. Foods with calcium and fruits and vegetables lead to strong bones and strong teeth. Limits should be placed on sugary or starchy snacks and drinks.

" The American Dental Association recommends that parents take their baby to the dentist as soon as the first tooth comes in or at least by age 1. The dentist will then be able to give parents advice early and it will get the child accustomed to visiting the dentist, hopefully cutting down on fears and anxiety.

For more child development and parenting information, parents are encouraged to visit the Parents as Teachers National Center web site, at www.ParentsAsTeachers.org.

About Parents as Teachers National Center
Based in St. Louis, Parents as Teachers National Center is the resource base and backbone of Parents as Teachers, a parent education and early childhood development program serving parents throughout pregnancy until their child enters kindergarten, usually age 5. The nonprofit National Center oversees more than 3,000 programs offering Parents as Teachers services nationwide as well as in several other countries. For more information about Parents as Teachers, visit www.ParentsAsTeachers.org.

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