Good dental health practices are vital throughout your child’s life, but those practices are most impactful during the formative years.

Travis Nelson, pediatric dentist and acting chair of UW Pediatric Dentistry, feels passionate about infant dental care. “A healthy mouth and a healthy body go hand in hand,” he says. “All children deserve the opportunity to start life with a set of healthy teeth, yet today more than a quarter of all 2- to 6-year-old children have experienced dental decay, amounting to over 4.5 million U.S. preschoolers.”

Children with decay can experience pain that:
• Impairs their sleep.
• Interferes with normal feeding and growth.
• Hinders school performance.
“Many people aren’t aware of how much a child’s dental health can affect their life,” Nelson says. “It is our goal that our [dental] students learn how to compassionately care for children’s oral health, and that our patients have great dental experiences.”

Kim Trieu, vice chair of the Delta Dental Member Advisory Panel, also feels strongly about establishing solid dental health habits early on. “Unfortunately tooth decay is still a rampant problem, she says. “There was a Smile Survey [conducted in 2015 by Washington State Department of Health and Arcora Foundation] which showed 53% of third-graders in Washington state experienced tooth decay, and 12% have untreated tooth decay.”

Trieu runs her own practice in Everett and has five children (ages 11, 10, 8, 5 and 3). “As a dentist and a mother,” she says, “I have seen how impactful starting dental care early has on children as they grow, which makes me very passionate about oral health education for families regarding tools, techniques and diet!”

Pregnant people can start things off right by attending to their own oral health. “Excessive bacterial growth in the mother’s mouth can travel through the bloodstream to her uterus and can cause premature labor,” Trieu says. “After the baby is born, mothers also can pass along bacteria to their newborns, which can cause cavities in those children.” Bacteria gets shared by forms of saliva transfer, like giving kisses on the mouth and sharing utensils.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends your child’s first dentist visit happens by age 1 — or within six months of the eruption of the first tooth. As soon as the enamel erupts from a baby’s gums, Trieu says parents can start teeth cleaning with a wet cloth. “Parents, pay attention to which teeth are coming out,” she says. “If you’re concerned if the teeth are erupting out of sequence or unevenly, have your local dentist examine them.”

“The earlier children begin going to the dentist,” Nelson says, “the more comfortable they’ll be with exams throughout their life.” The initial visit is a great opportunity to:
• Check a baby’s teeth for cavities.
• Ensure the gums are healthy.
• Provide preventive services like fluoride.
Counsel parents on healthy diet and hygiene practices. “It’s also very important to establish a ‘dental home,’ where the child can go for routine care, and in cases where they have trauma or other problems with their teeth,” Nelson says.

When preparing for the appointment, Nelson says it’s best to stay positive. “This is an opportunity to meet someone new who cares about your child,” he says. “Children can zero in on a parent’s fears, so if you’re afraid, usually the less you say, the better.” He suggests sharing a dentist-related book ahead of time and reiterating how much dental staff like children — and keeping their teeth healthy.

Both experts agree that baby teeth shouldn’t be treated as temporary. “Unlike bones, teeth do not change size and shape as the individual grows,” Nelson says. “There is no way that large adult teeth would fit in a baby’s mouth, and adults wouldn’t be able to eat or speak well with big spaces between all of the tiny teeth. So, like other mammals, humans have two sets of teeth to account for our growth. If we don’t care for baby teeth, they can develop cavities.” This can lead to pain, dangerous infection and loss of space needed for the permanent teeth.

“While most parents know the effects of a child’s sunburn can resurface with serious consequences later in life,” Trieu says, “many are not aware that similarly both tooth decay early in a child’s life can also have long-term effects which linger far past the loss of their baby teeth.”

Nelson emphasizes that healthy habits — exercising, eating well and sleeping enough — are key to overall health. “The same goes for our oral health,” he says. “Establishing habits like brushing teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, limiting sugary foods and beverages, and having regular dental exams will help ensure a healthy dental future.”

Trieu agrees that, in the formative years, establishing routine is paramount. “Parents can make it fun! Having a family activity so the child and parent can hold each other accountable!” she says. “Please know that little ones are still developing their dexterity and would still need parental help and guidance up to age seven to nine years old (each child is unique).”

As the state’s leading dental benefits provider, Delta Dental is committed to improving oral and overall health with no one left behind, including funding for Arcora Foundation in its efforts to improve health equity and extending access to underserved communities.