The Northern Daily Leader

How parents can set their kids up for a lifetime of dental health - right from birth

Making dental hygiene a priority for your children from an early age means a healthier future ahead.
Making dental hygiene a priority for your children from an early age means a healthier future ahead.

This is branded content for Tamworth Complete Dental.

There's one dental health statistic that particularly horrifies Tamworth dentist Vera Stephenson - more than 30 per cent of Aussie kids have experienced tooth decay before they are five.

"This is in their little baby teeth," said Dr Stephenson, who operates Tamworth Complete Dental. "The heartbreaking thing is that early childhood decay is so preventable and yet the incidence is only going up.

It's a statistic Dr Stephenson is on a mission to help change by increasing parental awareness about the habits that can reduce the risks of decay. In the process, she hopes to help set more children up for a lifetime of good dental health - and no fear of dental appointments.

That prevention of early childhood decay can begin even before the birth of a baby by ensuring mums' oral health is as big a focus as the rest of her during pregnancy so she doesn't pass on risk factors.

If mothers have the particular acid-loving bacteria that causes decay in their mouths it can be transferred to their newborn if it's not addressed, says Dr Stephenson.

"A baby has no bacteria when they're born, no gut bacteria and no bacteria in their mouth," said Dr Stephenson. "If you have that bad bacteria, Streptococcus mutans, it can be passed on to bub through saliva. The bacteria colonises in the mouth and then it's very hard to change.

Tamworth dentist Dr Vera Stephenson.
Tamworth dentist Dr Vera Stephenson.

"Even before birth we know this bacteria is also associated with risks like premature birth and underweight babies so it's important for women planning a family or are pregnant to see their dentist. It means we can treat any infection so they can pass on a healthier set of bacteria."

Healthier habits from birth

Dr Stephenson said the action plan a dentist can help with includes lots of ways to reduce the risk factors associated with decay from the start of a child's life.

Teaching and building good dental health habits, including what and when we eat, correct brushing and flossing routines, and good relationships with your family dentist, is an invaluable gift to children.

"Kids will of course look to their parents and copy them so if parents know the right way to brush, are conscious of behaviours that cause decay, and know when they ideally should start bringing in their kids for a check up, we can prevent decay in these little kids," said Dr Stephenson.

"A lot of people seem to dismiss the importance of keeping baby teeth healthy because they're only temporary but we know that if you have decay as a child it's very likely you'll get very bad decay as an adult.

"And baby teeth are so important for development - eating, talking and shaping the jaw and face. Decay, if not treated, would cause them pain and possibly early tooth loss."

Reasons for rise

There are particular habits Dr Stephenson says are driving the rise in decay in under fives. The good news is they are simple to avoid.

Key contributors include behaviours like putting babies to bed with their bottle of milk or formula, as well as providing children with sippy cups through the day filled with sweet drinks such as juice rather than just plain water.

"When mother's breast feed. the feed is done and then it's over, but with breast feeding decreasing parents are more likely to give their child a bottle and let them sip on it over a longer period of time - and they might put kids to bed with a bottle - so the milk, that contains lactose, a natural sugar, is on their teeth for an extended time feeding the bacteria that causes decay," Dr Stephenson said.

"It's the same with sippy cups that mean the child can be sipping on these sweet drinks all through the day. That's a massive no-no for encouraging decay.

"And it's normal these days for kids to go to school with a lunch box full of things like Rollups and LCMs. Baby teeth are much more prone to decay but they are eating sugar like nothing else."

Decay in the baby teeth of a young child. Picture supplied
Decay in the baby teeth of a young child. Picture supplied

Another rising risk factor is mouth breathing because of the increase in allergies and blocked noses, says Dr Stephenson.

"Once you switch to mouth breathing you have a massive risk of decay," she said, "because it means the mouth is drying out and we don't have the amount of saliva going around giving teeth back some of the calcium they lose during eating."

No fear dental visits

If you've ever felt the fear of a trip to the dentist you'd know it's not something you want to pass on to your kids. Dr Stephenson says that early introduction to a regular dentist for visits that are just for checkups can ensure those fears don't develop. And it means any problems with teeth can be addressed quickly.

"If a child has been seeing the dentist since they were two-years-old they trust them and have that relationship, it's a really relaxed environment, not traumatic at all." she said.

"For children who only come in to the dentist if they have a problem. to have a baby tooth out or have a big filling they are terrified of the dentist.

"Here they come in, have a ten-minute check up, they get a little present from the gift box and they really take pride in how well they are looking after their teeth, setting them up for a healthier future."