Health Matters: Dental Tips for Busy Parents
As parents, most of us are doing the best we can to balance a lot of competing priorities. When we end a busy work day by picking up our children from school, shuttling them to and from afterschool activities, getting dinner on the table, and helping with homework, the last thing some of us want to deal with is making sure our children floss their teeth before bed. I get it. Even though I’m a dentist, I’m also a dad.
However, there are a few important facts you should know about caring for your children’s teeth, facts that can help you make small changes with big impacts in your child’s oral health. To avoid cavities, it helps to understand what causes them—and the culprit isn’t just sugar. Cavities are most often caused by a combination of three things:
- Foods containing carbohydrates (which the body breaks down into sugar),
- Foods that remain stuck on the teeth for a long time, and
- Foods that are consumed over long periods of time.
The very worst foods are processed foods, which generally meet all three criteria.
If you are going for Dental Parent of the Year, consider limiting your child’s snacks to low-carb foods such as raw crunchy vegetables, raw leafy vegetables, cheese, nuts, meats, fats, and eggs. Snacks such as carrots, almonds, mozzarella sticks, and hard-boiled eggs have comparatively little sugar, are not sticky, and are quick to eat. These are the best.
If your goal is to be a darn good parent, you can offer a wider variety of snacks. Carbohydrates that can be consumed in minutes and are fine in moderation, foods like popcorn, fresh fruit (crunchy is best), plain yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, dark chocolate, and even ice cream. Saliva can break these foods down fairly quickly, which prevents cavities from forming.
The most damaging foods are sticky processed foods like candy, chips, crackers, pretzels, dried fruit or fruit strips; and sugary drinks such as soda, juice, chocolate milk, and sports drinks. Basically, if it comes in a small, shiny bag, it’s probably a bad idea. It takes three to four days of brushing to completely dislodge and dissolve much of this sticky food, a time when plaque begins to form and eat through the hard enamel exterior of the tooth.
In addition to knowing what to eat, it’s also important to know how to eat. Eating snacks all day doesn’t give teeth a chance to rest. Children should eat a meal or snack and then brush their teeth (or if that’s impractical, rinse their mouths with water) and go a few hours between eating.
If you think bad teeth run in your family, you may be surprised to find out that scientifically speaking, it’s not true. What does run in families is bacteria. So, if you suffer from cavities and you have a very young child, it is best not to share utensils or to clean their pacifier with your mouth.
Teaching good oral hygiene (regular brushing and flossing), providing low-carb snacks with breaks between meals, and limiting the sharing of bacteria can go a long way toward improving your child’s oral health. When you add in regular visits to the dentist, you’ve got it made. It’s best to take your child to the dentist as soon as their first tooth pops through and every six months thereafter.
Dentists have moved away from the common practices of prior decades when intervention was considered early and often. Now, we know many problems will resolve on their own. Often for smaller cavities we use a wait-and-see approach. We also try a medical management of lesions on younger or pre-cooperative patients.
Not only will good oral health habits improve the likelihood that your child will experience a lifetime of pain-free eating, scientific studies indicate that good oral health has other health benefits, too. Ask your dentist for details.
Dr. Navneet Mansukhani is the dental director at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people residing in Lake and Mendocino Counties.