Secrets of the tooth fairy

Getting into good oral habits now will save your child decay, damage and gum disease later. Read on for some simple and sugar-free ways to protect your child’s teeth.

As a Dental Hygienist, parents are always asking me how to manage their children’s teeth. And, as a mother of two, even I’ve had days where I struggled to clean my toddler’s and children’s teeth. Getting a toothbrush anywhere near their mouths can be a mammoth task and, with all the health information out there, it can be rather overwhelming.

Here a few basic steps you can follow at home which will protect your child’s mouth without too much effort.

the effect of sugar

We all know sugar causes tooth decay, but having a basic understanding of the actual process of how, where and why makes it more motivating to try and limit your child’s sugar intake.

Microscopic bacteria called plaque grow on the teeth, usually in hard to reach areas. They eat sugar and produce acid as a waste product almost immediately. The acid dissolves the tooth which is the start of tooth decay. Special enzymes in our saliva can stop the acid attack, however, it takes up to one hour to produce enough saliva to do so. You can’t brush or rinse it off. So, every time we eat anything with sugar in it, it is counted as one hour of decay.

Cutting sugar completely from our diet is ideal, but, let’s face it, it’s unrealistic. Also, eating sugars the right ways teaches our children from an early age to make good, manageable choices.

a diet sheet

This is a good way to find out what sugars are going in and allows you to count the hours of decay per day. Write down everything your children eat and drink and the time at which they eat it. Every sugar counts as one hour of decay. If there are more than two sugars in one sitting (eg, lunch), it’s still only one tick (it’s not how much, but how often) and if your child gets more than two ticks a day on their diet sheet, there is active decay happening.

treat days

The easiest way to start managing sugar intake is by choosing Treat days. Choose one day (or two max) per week, ideally with three days in between. Stick to the same days each week to make it routine. On those days, allow your children to have sugary treat foods, but try and group them together (ie, it’s better to eat all the lollies in one sitting, than spreading them throughout the day). Bacteria can only eat so much, so it’s not how much we have, but how often. Enouragingly, teeth have the ability to repair themselves using saliva, but it takes up to three days to start, hence the advised three day gap.

identifying sugars

This becomes easy with practice

  • Fresh fruit is too big a molecule for bacteria to eat, but all fruit juice, dried fruit and any fruit that is processed (ie, tinned fruit) will cause decay.
  • Even diluted juice or cordial will still cause decay because the sugar molecules have already been broken into smaller (decay-causing) molecules by being processed into juice initially. Therefore, fresh juice advertising ‘no sugar added’ already has broken down fruit sugars, so will cause decay regardless.
  • Remember that honey is also sugar.
  • Vegemite and My Mate are sugar-free, but our other leading brand Marmite has sugar added. Toddlers love marmite on toast and can chew on a piece for quite a while, so opt for vegemite.
  • Muesli bars, snack bars and biscuits are full of sticky sugar, staying stuck on the teeth for a few hours.
  • Energy drinks are causing rampant decay in our pre-teens and teens. The sugar content is already very high, but the caffeine (being a diuretic) reduces saliva flow, causing acid attacks to last for longer and making the child thirstier.
  • If in doubt, read the labels and remember: it’s not how much sugar, but how often.

gum disease

Although brushing won’t completely stop decay, it does reduce the amount of bacteria causing decay and, most importantly, it stops gum disease. Bacteria begin to grow within a couple of hours of cleaning. Gum disease is caused by bacteria growing at the gum level which produces toxins. These cause our immune system to react, which it does by eating the gum and bone to accommodate the growing bacteria, causing the gum to become inflamed and bleed. Bleeding gums when we brush or eat is a sign of gum disease - not trauma.

correct brushing technique

Brushing baby’s teeth with a baby toothbrush is recommended, but as they grow into toddlers, we need to start brushing their gums as well. The gum level is most important - warm and wet, it’s the perfect place for bacteria to grow.

When brushing your children’s teeth, teach them to hold their brush in their fingertips. Brush half on the tooth and half on the gums and gently move the brush over only one or two teeth at a time, counting ten strokes per two teeth. Teeth aren’t flat but slightly rounded, so always follow the cuticle of each tooth. Gum levels are designed to be brushed; they toughen up, protecting us against rough foods and forming a tight collar around the tooth.

Electric brushes are ideal as their heads are very small, making it easy for children to clean. The oscillating head helps to buff the tooth surface and a small side to side action on each tooth toughens the gum. Plus, their two-minute timers helps teach children how long they should spend cleaning, and the pressure-sensitive tip slows down or stops when too much pressure is applied. If using a manual brush, always use a small soft head, avoiding rubber bristles and cups on the brush head.

Whatever happens, persevere with brushing your child’s teeth twice a day, as routines started early become natural habits when they hit their teens and adulthood.

The golden rule: the mouth is not a separate entity to the body, and it’s a very good barometer of what is going on in the system. Infections in the mouth can and
do drain into the rest of the body, causing systemic diseases as your children get older.

If you have doubts or questions, your hygienist, therapist or dentist will be able to guide you in the right direction, and when visiting, take your children’s diet sheet for them to assess the sugar risks.

We are creatures of habit and routines are established at an early age. What we do for our children will follow them right through into adulthood.

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