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An expert warns against a common excuse parents use for their kids not brushing their teeth.

Many parents will be familiar with the challenges of getting young children to brush their teeth.

There are songs, rhymes and bribes to help ensure basic oral hygiene happens, but all too often, when it’s bedtime or during the morning rush, parents simply don’t have the time or energy to put into the battle.

“It’s just baby teeth, they’ll fall out,” some parents think to themselves, to allay their fears.

But the bad news is, baby teeth matter a lot more than we may realise.

Mamamia spoke to Dr Mihiri Silva, a paediatric dentist (and a mother who understands the struggle), from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, to discover exactly why.

What do you say to parents who think oral care for baby teeth doesn’t matter?

“We know for a number of reasons that oral care for first teeth is really important,” Dr Silva said.

“This is partly because our habits are something we develop from an early age, and so parents need to help their kids understand the value of their teeth.

“I know it’s hard at the start, but it will make a sound routine so much easier to implement later.”

Dr Silva added that caring for baby teeth is important to help prevent decay.

“Dental decay is still a big problem for Australian kids. Over a third have tooth decay by the time they start school,” she said.

“Statistics for hospital admissions show dental issues are one of the most common reasons for preventable acute hospitalisation.

“Hospitalisation is required when decay is so severe that the amount of dental of treatment is too much for a child to bear, so it needs to be performed under a general anaesthetic.

“The other reason for hospitalisation occurs when there’s a serious infection that’s caused by tooth decay, resulting in systemic illness that needs to be treated by IV antibiotics.

What are the risks of losing baby teeth from decay?

“Losing baby teeth, especially multiple, can affect language development at a crucial time when children are learning to form words,” Dr Silva warned.

“There’s also an impact on nutrition. Baby teeth loss can result in difficulty chewing food. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence which shows the impact of decay on the ability of kids to enjoy a varied and healthy diet, that then effects their skin and growth.”

Then there’s also the potential issue of ‘crowding’ to consider.

“Baby teeth fall out at different times, and leave space for the adult teeth that are ready to come through soon after,” Dr Silva explained.

“When that happens naturally, there’s a timing and pattern. But when teeth are lost prematurely from decay, leaving a space with no adult tooth to fill it, the other baby teeth can drift and tilt and fill the gap.

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“This leads to not enough space for the adult teeth – crowding – and can cause problems which require dentistry work in the future.”

Dr Silva also advised that tooth decay in baby teeth doesn’t bode well for a patient’s future.

“There’s excellent evidence to show decay in the younger years means you’re much more likely to have decay as an adult,” she said.

“It also becomes a bigger challenge to keep the teeth healthy once decay has begun, so the longer you can prevent it, the better.”

What are the signs of decay parents should look out for?

“The first sign you might notice is white marks on the teeth that weren’t there before, and they are usually close to the gum,” Dr Silva explained.

“Teeth can then get little holes, and brown spots, or even break apart. You may even notice an abscess.

“But tooth decay between the teeth is hard to detect, and that’s where a dentist plays an important role in care.”

When should a baby’s first dental visit be?

Dr Silva advised parents make the first dental appointment for their child around the 12 month mark.

“It’s important to establish a relationship with a dentist as part of routine care, as early as possible. That way, we can also check for early signs of tooth decay,” she said.

How can parents help prevent decay?

Dr Silva explained that children usually begin to lose teeth by the age of six, and have a full set of adult teeth by about 13.

“Those are the crucial years parents need to pay attention to,” Dr Silva said.

“Parents are at the forefront of keeping their kids’ teeth healthy. So, they need to ensure that brushing happens twice a day, and that age-appropriated fluoridated toothpaste is used.”

Dr Silva advised that adult toothpaste can be used from six years of age.

“The other important thing parents can do is reduce sweet drinks and snacks. The sugar content of a diet is crucial in helping prevent tooth decay.”

Dr Silva added that whilst she understands parents are busy, they also need to be informed about the importance of early oral hygiene.

“I’m a parent myself, so I know it’s challenging. But there are misconceptions about baby teeth, and it’s important we give our kids early healthy habits for life.

“There are health professionals to support parents, so you should access those services.”

Nama Winston has had a decade-long legal career (paid), and a decade-long parenting career (unpaid). Now a Mamamia Contributor and freelance writer, Nama uses her past experience as a lawyer to discuss everything from from politics, to parenting. Instagram: @namawinston Facebook: @NamaWinston.
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