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One-third of preschoolers have never seen a dentist and most parents believe children don’t need to see one before they’re three years old. 

Results released today from the latest Royal Children’s Hospital National Child Health Poll also reveal one in three children (33%) aren’t brushing their teeth twice a day and almost half of parents (46%) don’t know that tap water is better for teeth than bottled water.

Untreated dental disease can cause chronic infection and pain. This can affect a child’s ability to eat, play and learn, and so impact their growth, development and quality of life. It’s also linked to long-term health outcomes like heart disease and diabetes.

Our poll shows that many parents, despite meaning well, lack the basic knowledge to prevent tooth decay in their children. Others are confused when it comes to recommendations about brushing teeth, diet and when to see the dentist for a check-up.

When a child should see the dentist

Children should visit the dentist when their first tooth comes through, or at 12 months of age. 

Early visits are essential to provide parents with support and education to help keep their children’s teeth and gums healthy, before teeth break down and start to cause trouble. Children as young as two can require treatment in hospital for severely broken down, infected and painful teeth.

Tooth decay develops over time and early decay can be hard to spot. Starting dental check-ups from 12 months will help identify any red flags and allow parents to make changes to diet and lifestyle. Regular check-ups allow decay to be detected and treated early and more complex and costly treatments avoided. Some children require check-ups more often than others and parents should consult with their dentist on how often their child should go.

Seeing a dentist can be costly though. In our poll, one in five parents cited cost as a reason for delaying a visit to the dentist. But many were unaware of the free dental services that may be available to their children. 

Ultimately, only dental professionals are registered to provide dental examinations to children. GPs and child health nurses can also help direct families to appropriate and affordable dental services.

When should children brush their teeth?

While brushing once a day is better than not at all, brushing teeth twice a day further reduces the chance of tooth decay. Our poll found one-third of children aren’t brushing their teeth often enough, with one in four parents believing once a day is adequate.

Dentists recommend using a cloth to clean a baby’s gums from birth, moving onto a toothbrush with water when the first tooth erupts. A pea-sized amount of children’s strength toothpaste is recommended from 18 months of age. Children can use adult-strength toothpaste from the age of six. Parents should help children with brushing their teeth up to the age of eight to ensure it’s done properly.

Most children will begin losing their primary teeth, also known as “baby” or “milk” teeth, from around the age of six. The last falls out about age 12. One in five parents indicated they thought it didn’t matter if young children got tooth decay since their baby teeth fall out anyway.

Primary teeth may be temporary, but they need to be strong and healthy so children can chew, speak and smile with confidence. They also act as “space savers” for adult teeth. If a child prematurely loses a milk tooth, the tooth beside it may drift into the empty space, preventing the adult tooth from erupting into its proper place.

What about diet?

Our poll found one in four children under five years are put to bed most days of the week with a bottle containing milk-based or sweetened drinks. This practice is strongly linked to tooth decaydue to the prolonged exposure of teeth to sugar during sleep. Babies should finish their bottles before being put into bed. From around one year of age, they should be encouraged to drink from a cup instead.

But sugar-sweetened drinks are not the only worry when it comes to teeth. In recent years, bottled water intake in kids has increased considerably, and half of parents think bottled water may be better for teeth than tap water. 

The recommended maximum daily intake of added sugar for children is around five teaspoons. A 375ml can of soft drink contains around nine teaspoons of sugar.

It’s not just up to parents and dentists to tackle the growing problem of child tooth decay. Other healthcare providers and policymakers have a critical role to play. We need to make sure all parents have access to the right information and support to make healthy choices for their children’s teeth every day from birth.

- The Conversation

The Conversation