Why More Preschoolers Are Going Under the Dentist’s Drill

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Little Johnny may turn on the waterworks at the sight of a toothbrush, but dentists say that’s no excuse for parents to go lax on the twice-a-day brushing rule.

According to a front-page story in Tuesday’s New York Times, dentists are reporting a spike in cavities among preschool-age children. In many cases the decay is so severe that it requires extensive dental work under general anesthesia to correct. The Times reports that dentists nationwide are increasingly seeing preschoolers with 6 to 10 cavities or more, and while tooth decay is typically seen more often in poor children, the problem is increasing in families of all income levels.

You can guess the reasons for the poor state of preschoolers’ pearly whites: endless snacking, too much sipping on juice or other sweet drinks at bedtime, parents choosing bottled water over fluoridated tap water for kids, lack of enforcement of good tooth-brushing habits and parents’ ignorance about how to recognize tooth decay or when to take kids to the dentist.

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Parents, it’s time to use a bit of “tough love.” Your kid may not like brushing his teeth, but it shouldn’t be a choice. Reports the Times‘ Catherine Saint Louis:

“Let’s say a child is 1 ½, and the child screams when they get their teeth cleaned,” said Dr. Jed Best, a pediatric dentist in Manhattan. “Some parents say, ‘I don’t want my little darling to be traumatized.’ The metaphor I give them is, ‘I’d much rather have a kid cry with a soft toothbrush than when I have to drill a cavity.’”

But if baby teeth are going to fall out anyway, do they need to be drilled at all? According to Dr. Joel Berg, director of the Center for Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, treating early cavities is critical for preventing further oral health issues and other problems. “We have to fix cavities to treat the overall health of the child. We see kids coming into emergency rooms with swollen faces from untreated cavities. Kids are not good at reporting tooth problems and this can lead to other orthodontia problems later and even trouble paying attention at school.”

The key to being able to spot serious dental issues is to take your kids to the dentist early. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends a “first visit by the first birthday.”

“Even though kids do not have very many teeth yet, the teeth are likely still healthy and we can show parents how to look for signs of poor tooth health,” says Dr. Berg. White spots on teeth and any sign of plaque are red flags. According to Dr. Berg, plaque can lead to acid, which can cause tooth decay.

“But parents need to actually come in with their child so we can show them how to successfully spot these issues,” says Berg.

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Below, a summary of additional dental health tips from the Times, provided by dentists:

  • Brush the teeth of children 2 or younger with a bit of fluoride toothpaste twice a day. Keep brushing children’s teeth for them through preschool, since they won’t be able to do it on their own effectively until age 7 or so.
  • Reduce the frequency of snacking on starchy or sugary foods, which promote decay-causing acid.
  • Don’t share utensils with your child or put his or her pacifier in your mouth. Tooth decay can be “contagious” when cavity-causing bacteria are passed through saliva.

Read the full New York Times story here.