The Value of Guarding Kids' Teeth

An early push against decay can prevent costly fixes later.

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Just because kids eventually shed their baby teeth doesn't mean they're not important. Taking pains to keep first teeth healthy might save parents money and grief down the line. Once established, tooth decay can progress rapidly, especially in youngsters, until the only recourse is removal. "If children lose [baby teeth] prematurely, big teeth can come in crowded," says Keith Morley, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "This may lead to braces that might not have otherwise been necessary." Last spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a recent rise in childhood tooth decay, which now affects 28 percent of preschoolers. "It's the most prevalent chronic disease in children," says Bruce Dye, the report's lead author. Here's how to protect your tyke.

Find a "dental home" early. Dental visits should begin no later than a child's first birthday, Morley says, so tooth decay can be spotted early or avoided through prevention. Some dentists may later recommend protective sealants for permanent teeth.

Brush, brush, brush. When that first tooth pokes through the gum, it's time for parents to start brushing, says Paul Casamassimo, chief of dentistry at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Beginning early helps instill good lifelong dental habits and ensures sufficient exposure to fluoride. Of course, when kids are old enough, they should take over.

Shake off sugars. Decay-causing bacteria gobble sugar for fuel. That's why parents need to control how much—and when—their kids consume the stuff, Morley says. Sweetened beverages are prime culprits, but even milk contains sugar, so bedbound youngsters shouldn't be given bottles. Dentists recommend that "sippy" cups, too, contain only water, except at mealtime. Also at fault are certain foods. Obvious: candy. Less so: sticky, starchy snacks like chips and fries (their carbohydrates quickly break down into sugar), raisins, granola bars, and other gooey treats. Opt for cheese, Morley says, which cavity-causing bacteria hate, or carrots, sliced apples, or celery.