More than a third of all children have some tooth decay by the time they start school, according to the National Child Oral Health Study1 of school students.
That’s why it’s crucial to keep children’s teeth healthy right from the beginning.
Children should start regular visits to a dentist when they are 12 months old, or when their first tooth comes through, says paediatric dentist Dr Mihiri Silva.
Here are some simple tips to keep your children’s teeth healthy.
Help your kids brush their teeth
Children might try to brush their own teeth, but they need help with brushing until they’re about eight years old, Dr Silva says. Often kids are ready to brush by themselves around the time they get their pen licence at school.
Start brushing your child’s teeth with fluoridated toothpaste at 18 months of age, morning and night.
Your child’s dentist can help suggest tips and tricks to brushing your child’s teeth without stress.
While you help them brush, check their teeth for any signs of decay.
Good diet is key to healthy teeth
Children need a wide variety of food for healthy teeth and bodies.
As well as healthy meals full of vegetables, protein and complex carbohydrates, kids need healthy snacks between meals. A good start is to give them tap water instead of high-sugar soft drinks or flavoured milk.
Some healthy snack options include:
- Carrot and celery sticks
- Cheese cubes
- Plain crackers
Avoid giving kids too many unhealthy snacks such as:
- Sweetened yoghurts
- Muesli bars
- Fruit juice
- Flavoured milk
- Soft drinks
Start visits to the dentist early
It’s important to look after a child’s baby teeth, even though they do eventually fall out. If baby teeth are removed because of decay, it can cause problems with the way adult teeth develop.
“Children should have their first dental check at 12 months, or when the first tooth comes through – whichever occurs first,” Dr Silva says.
A baby’s first tooth usually comes through between four and six months of age. But many parents don’t take their children to see a dentist at all during their baby, toddler and preschool years, Dr Silva says.
“That first dental visit is important because there are things that can be done to prevent tooth decay.
“It's a really important time for the dentist to give the parent important advice for their child.
“Each child is different with different sleeping patterns, feeding patterns, and temperaments. There can also be cultural differences.”
Research is now showing that early habits and behaviours around oral health can have a life-long impact on health.
“We're starting to see that tooth decay is about the environment in the mouth, and that probably is determined from early in life.
“It is in line with tooth development but also in line with our understanding of oral health, common dental conditions in children like enamel defects and dental caries, and the role of those early visits in setting them up for future health. That's really what those early visits are about.”
Visit the dentist every six months
Children should see a dentist every six months, Dr Silva says. Some children might need to go more often, and others less frequently.
“It's something that depends on the child and it needs a clinical assessment to decide,” she says.
“It's nice if children can come more regularly in those early years because it really builds their confidence and gets them comfortable with visits to the dentist. We can then do more preventive care as they get older, such as cleaning their teeth or doing fissure sealants, which we know are really effective in reducing decay.”
“All those sorts of things work really well if you build up a good relationship with your dentist.”
Reasons why children don’t see a dentist
So why don’t parents and caregivers take their children to see a dentist in those early years? Interestingly, cost isn’t the main reason, but is fourth down the list, Dr Silva says.
The reasons are:
- Parents think their child's teeth are healthy already
- Parents think their child is too young to see a dentist
- Parents think their child might be scared even before they’ve seen a dentist for the first time
- Parents think it will cost too much.
“That suggests that parents don't understand that if a child’s teeth are healthy, they should still go and see a dentist because we want to stop them from becoming unhealthy.”
“And that's really what early visits are about.”
Even though tooth decay is preventable, it’s the highest cause of preventable acute hospitalisation in children aged five to nine.
“It's staggering that something that we can prevent still leads to such severe levels of tooth decay.”
Don’t wait until your child has tooth decay or pain before taking them to a dentist, Dr Silva says.
Dental costs may be covered
Dental care is commonly included in private health insurance extras cover. Most extras cover includes a range of dental procedures, including:
- Preventative treatments
- Dental examinations
- Scale and clean
If your family doesn’t have private health insurance, then find out if your state offers a subsidised dental service. Each state has a different system of public assistance for children's dental services.
If you receive federal government benefits such as Family Tax Benefit A or Parenting payment, you are eligible for up to $1000 in dental visits over two years under the Child Dental Benefits Schedule.
1. Do L, Spencer AJ, eds. Oral health of Australian children: the National Child Oral Health Study 2012–14. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press; 2016
Dr Mihiri Silva is a paediatric dentist, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, and vice-chair of the Australian Dental Association’s oral health committee.