Your Health Questions Answered

Pro Tips for Keeping Kids' Smiles Healthy

Pediatric dentist Dr. Manav Malik shares tips for keeping children's mouths healthy and clean between appointments.

By Allison Forsyth February 9, 2022

Image: Gigi Ortwein

February is National Children's Dental Health Month. Each year, the American Dental Association chooses a different theme for the month—and this year, the theme is sealants, which help reduce the risk of cavities.

Early tooth decay is one of the most common chronic childhood diseases. In fact, the American Dental Association says more than 40 percent of children experience some tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten.

In addition, one in 33 children in the United States is born with a congenital anomaly, including ectodermal dysplasias or cleft palate/lip. These children often need three to five surgical procedures to correct the anomalies, but treatment can be covered under the recently passed Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act (ELSA)—more on that below.

Here's what you can do this month to ensure your child, or grandchild, has a healthy mouth.

Schedule their first dental visit.

Before your child is even born, Dr. Manav Malik at Smile Works Dentistry in Sarasota says mothers should consider their oral health, too. "Mothers with poor oral health may be at greater risk of passing bacteria, which causes cavities to their young children," Malik explains. So visit the dentist regularly, brush and floss, and implement a healthy diet.

Children should see the dentist by the time they grow their first tooth, or by their first birthday. This will help them become more comfortable visiting the dentist over time, and will give parents the opportunity to ask any questions they may have.

During this visit, the dentist will gently swab the child's mouth to check gum health and growing teeth.

Implement a healthy brushing routine.

Protecting baby teeth in children up to age 10 is important. Help children brush their teeth twice a day and teach them to floss or use a floss picker once per day. Plus, reduce the amount of sugary drinks and foods that children consume. Bacteria from the sugar can build up on tooth enamel and cause early decay.

Visit the dentist every six months.

Schedule regular cleanings and check-ups with the dentist every six months. This way, X-rays can be taken to ensure teeth are growing correctly and cavities can be treated.

To help children who are scared to go to the dentist, Malik suggests avoiding words such as "drill," "needle," "pull," or hurt," when describing the visit. "Staff will also explain all procedures to the kids to help ease fear," he adds.

Stay hydrated!

Water helps rinse away sugar or particles that can cause cavities. Many water sources also contain fluoride, which is a substance dentists use to prevent tooth decay. According to Malik, fluoride can prevent tooth decay by as much as 50 to 70 percent.

Replace your toothbrush often.

Get your child a new toothbrush every three to four months.

Learn more about the Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act (ELSA).

The Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act was reintroduced to the House of Representatives and Senate on March 16, 2021. The act has been passed by the House, but not yet by the Senate. It requires all private group and individual health plans to cover medical procedures to correct congenital anomalies or birth defects.

The American Dental Association's president Dr. Daniel Klemmedson says that anomalies include severe oral and facial defects such as cleft lip or palate, skeletal and maxillofacial deformities and hypodontia, or the absence of teeth. These conditions affect the ability to speak, breathe and eat.

According to the ADA, many insurance companies consider these procedures to be cosmetic. While insurance may cover the preliminary surgeries, they often postpone or deny follow-up or corrective procedures, further delaying the child's developmental milestones.

The Ensuring Lasting Smiles Act (ELSA) ensures children have these procedures done and that they have the required financial support from the government.

If you child has a congenital anomaly, a team of specialists are needed to help, including a pediatric dentist, plastic surgeon, ear, nose and throat physician and speech pathologist. With help, most children are treated successfully and have no lasting issues.

For a list of top pediatric dentists in Sarasota-Manatee, click here.

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