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Preventing tooth decay in children 

TOOTH DECAY is the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States. About 40% of children in the U.S. experience tooth decay known as dental caries, or cavities, by age 19. Untreated cavities can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing and learning. 

The good news is tooth decay is easily preventable. That starts with brushing teeth twice a day—including every night before bed—using fluoride toothpaste. It’s up to parents and caregivers to help kids start this healthy habit. 

What parents and caregivers can do 

Start brushing a child’s teeth as soon as they emerge in infancy. This can be done with a washcloth, finger brush or soft toothbrush. The latest recommendations are to use fluoride toothpaste immediately to help prevent cavities. The best way to get the appropriate amount is to dip the toothbrush bristles in the paste and whatever sticks to the bristles is all you need. Once the child can spit, then a pea-size amount can be used twice a day. 

Schedule your child’s first dentist appointment by the time they turn 1, or within three months of their first teeth emerging. 

Always brush before bed 

Many kids brush only once a day and it’s usually in the morning. It’s important to brush twice daily, but if you’re only going to brush once it should be at night before bed. The food and drinks we have throughout the day coat our teeth with sugars, and the bacteria that live in our mouths feast on it all night long. Eventually, the bacteria eat through the enamel and cause a cavity. 

After the bedtime brushing , make sure your child has nothing to eat or drink except water until morning. This rule applies to babies as well. Infants and toddlers that take milk as they fall asleep are at high risk for a condition called “milk mouth,” which causes the top four teeth to rot, change colors and break off. This is preventable by brushing their teeth after their milk and before laying them in the bed. 

ANGELA HOUCHIN, M.D., is a pediatrician at Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington.

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