Figures also show that half of all Australian children under six have some degree of tooth decay. Dr Peter Alldritt, chair of the Australian Dental Association’s oral health committee, says thousands of babies and toddlers undergo surgery every year in Australia to have decayed teeth removed, much to the horror of parents who often don’t realise they’re not looking after their children’s teeth correctly.
However, by following some simple guidelines, Dr Alldritt says parents can set their toddlers up to enjoy a lifetime of healthy teeth. Here he debunks common misconceptions about oral hygiene and offers tips for ensuring your little one has a winning smile.
MYTH: My toddler doesn’t need to go to the dentist yet – he hasn’t got all his baby teeth.
FACT: Babies should visit the dentist when they turn one, with annual check-ups after that.
It may seem early, but Dr Alldritt recommends babies visit the dentist by the time they celebrate their first birthday. Starting dental visits this young gives dentists the opportunity to spot potential problems – early stages of tooth decay can be treated. On average, all 20 baby teeth come through by the age of two or three. “It sounds a bit early…parents are often a bit shocked,’’ Dr Alldritt says of taking one-year-olds to the dentist. “They say ‘they haven’t even got all their teeth yet’. There’s a bit of a misconception that they’re only baby teeth anyway, that they’re not that important. The thing is, we do see decay in children. If children go to the dentist regularly we can prevent problems from happening and it makes such a difference.’’
MYTH: Brushing once a day is enough.
FACT: Twice a day is best, and brushing should start as soon as teeth appear.
“A lot of parents report that they only brush their child’s teeth once a day,” Dr Alldritt says. “I respect that parents are busy but to say they are too busy to brush their child’s teeth - I can’t respect that…just spend two minutes less on Facebook. I hear people with three-year-olds asking when they should start brushing their teeth. From the time teeth come up at about six months they need to be cleaned.”
MYTH: My children will have great teeth because they drink loads of milk.
FACT: It’s true that milk builds strong bones and teeth, but milk also contains lactose, a form of sugar, which can cause tooth decay, especially if your toddler takes a bottle of cow’s milk or formula to bed or is breastfed to sleep.
Dr Alldritt says regardless of whether babies and toddlers are breastfed or bottle fed, parents need to be aware that the lactose in milk could harm teeth, especially at bed time. Ideally, toddlers should have milk before bed and then brush their teeth before going to sleep to reduce the risk of decay. “We’re never going to discourage breastfeeding,’’ he says. “But if there’s going to be breastmilk in the mouth there’s going to be lactose and there’s going to be some sort of decay.”
MYTH: Juice is derived from fruit, so it’s healthy, right?
FACT: Orange juice often contains as much sugar as fizzy drinks.
Dr Alldritt says one of the biggest mistakes parents make is thinking it’s okay to give toddlers fruit juice. He says many parents diligently make home-cooked meals for toddlers, limit packaged foods and think they are making healthy choices. But they are often fooled by hidden sugars. Fruit juice with ‘no added sugar’ still contains natural sugar which contributes to tooth decay. Whole pieces of fruit are better, but two serves a day is plenty. “Tooth decay is primarily a disease that occurs due to sugar consumption,” Dr Alldritt says. He says parents should look closely at what toddlers snack on. Sultanas and muesli bars might seem healthy, but are packed with sugar. Grapes, a banana, cheese, nuts, Greek yoghurt or carrot sticks are better snacks for healthy teeth.
MYTH Bottled water is best.
FACT: Tap water is the ideal drink for your toddler because it contains fluoride to help build strong bones and teeth.
Most tap water in Australia has added fluoride. This magic mineral, which helps prevent tooth decay, works best when taken in small amounts throughout the day via tap water, foods and low-fluoride toothpaste. Bottled water isn’t legally required to contain fluoride and as the levels are not measured Dr Alldritt says it is best to assume it doesn’t contain any.
MYTH: I don’t need to worry about dummies or thumb-sucking until my child gets their adult teeth.
FACT: Dummies and thumb-sucking are discouraged by dentists.
Many toddlers love dummies. But dentists say it might be a good idea for them to kick the habit to prevent dental problems. Dr Alldritt says prolonged dummy usage or thumb sucking can affect the eruption of teeth. “Teeth simply don’t grow in the right position if a dummy is in the way,” he says.
MYTH: Visiting the dentist is scary and only needs to be done when my child has a toothache.
FACT: Dentists aim to make visits fun for toddlers and creating good habits prevents problems later in life.
“We can make kids have fun at the dentist and they can look forward to a check-up,” Dr Alldritt says. Funny jokes, cartoons, stickers, rides in the motorised chair and free toothbrushes all help kids enjoy their visit. Telling your child about needles and drills isn’t helpful, Dr Alldritt says, and simply projects a parent’s own bad dental experiences onto their children. “Children aren’t born with an innate fear of going to the dentist,” Dr Alldritt says. “Let’s not pass that on to innocent children. We go out of our way to make it fun for kids these days.
MYTH: I don’t waste money on toddler toothpaste. Surely adult toothpaste will do?
FACT: A low-fluoride toothpaste designed for children is best, as full-strength toothpaste can actually damage teeth.
Dr Alldritt says if children consume too much fluoride it can cause fluorosis, a build-up of white flecks on teeth enamel. Although purely cosmetic, it is best avoided. Children’s toothpaste also has a milder flavour which children prefer. Low-fluoride toothpaste should be used from 18 months to six years. After that, switch to adult toothpaste. However children drinking tank water should use adult toothpaste from 18 months to ensure adequate fluoride intake.