April 9, 2009

Milestones in the mouth…

Posted in Between Us column, Health at 3:48 am by dinaheng

My nieces and nephews, most of whom are under the age of 8, all have sweet tooths. Fortunately, their parents make them brush religiously, promising them rewards for preventing cavities from the Tooth Fairy if they’re good.

On a recent visit, I noticed that the bristles on a few of the kids’ toothbrushes were getting frayed, so went looking for replacements. I thought the only difference in brushes would be color and price, but discovered there are actually different shapes and types of bristles for different age groups, even for babies as young as four months old.

“You want to start taking care of teeth at the sign of the first tooth,” says Laura Jana, M.D., an Omaha, Neb. pediatrician and author of “Heading Home with Your Newborn” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005). “It’s a common misperception that the baby teeth don’t count. Teeth are connected through the gums to the brain and sinus. If you get an infection in a tooth, it’s easy for bacteria in the mouth to get in the bloodstream if there’s damage to the gums.”

Baby teeth are the place holders for adult teeth, and the roots of baby teeth can often be in contact with the new teeth coming in. 

“One of my children has never had a cavity or any issues, but the way the roots of her baby teeth were rubbing against her neighboring adult teeth was a problem,” Jana says. “She had to get two teeth pulled so that the adult teeth would come in straight, and so that the roots wouldn’t be damaged.”

The pediatrician recommends that a child’s first dental visit be no later than the first year, with or without teeth, or within six months after the first tooth appears.

It’s funny how important milestones in the mouth can be. We marvel over a “baby’s first tooth,” celebrating the fact that a child will soon be able to eat solid foods (and stop waking us up for nightly bottles or breast-feeding).  

When we’ve lost our baby teeth, we can’t wait for the permanent ones to fill in the gaps that everybody calls “so cute.” When we get braces, we can’t wait for them to come off because we think they make our smiles look ugly. When we’re older, there’s nothing more beautiful than the adult teeth we’ve lost.

“Enjoy the taste of the food you’re eating now,” my mother says. “With dentures, it just doesn’t taste the same.”

Or, as my eight-year-old niece Emily puts it, “Did you know some people have fake teeth?  Open your mouth. I want to see if you have any.”

She didn’t find any dentures, so shared, “It’s good to have real teeth.”

Like all things in life, we usually don’t fully appreciate what we have until it’s gone. So to help your kids keep their teeth real, here are some reminders from Dr. Jana:

* Limit sugary drinks and sweets, in favor of healthy snacks and meals;

* Make brushing fun and get kids used to brushing “before the age of defiance, which comes between 18 months and two,” she suggests;

* Starting at age two, begin using fluoridated toothpaste to help prevent decay, and

* As children grow, make sure the toothbrush matches what’s in their mouth — baby-soft bristles for under age two, soft or extra soft bristles up to age seven, and a brush with varying bristle textures for children who have a mixture of baby teeth, permanent teeth and gaps.

Hoping to make brushing fun, I decided to send my nieces and one nephew an assortment of Oral-B Disney princesses, Tigger & Pooh, and Baby Einstein toothbrushes. Okay, they probably would have preferred toys, but hey, this Tooth Fairy has real teeth.

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