"Neglected baby teeth lead to problems with permanent teeth," said Ovidio Penalver, a Puyallup, Wash., pediatrician. "Dental problems can lead to further problems that affect the whole health of a child." Penalver and other health-care providers note that parents seldom bring their children to a dentist before age three - but they take them to their doctor many times during those first years of their lives.
That being the case, said Dianne Riter, spokeswoman for the Washington Dental Service Foundation, "when the primary care provider is looking at overall health, it makes sense for them to also look at teeth and assess the risk of decay." Pediatricians can even step temporarily into the shoes of the dentist and paint baby teeth with fluoride varnish to protect them from cavities.
Experts, including those at the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, now recommend that parents have their babies' teeth checked by a dentist or pediatrician as soon as teeth appear, and at least by age one. "When you have teeth, you have to take care of them," Penalver said.
To enhance young children's oral health, medical professionals suggest the following: -- Wipe a baby's gums with a soft cloth after feeding. -- As soon as a baby's first teeth emerge, at perhaps six months of age, begin gently brushing them with a tiny bit of fluoride toothpaste and a soft toothbrush made especially for babies. -- Prevent frequent snacking on sugary or starchy foods.
-- Stop youngsters from constantly sipping sweet liquids. -- Provide kids with healthy snacks, such as cheese, fruit or vegetables. -- Don't put a baby to bed with a bottle filled with formula, milk or juice. Use water instead. -- Inspect teeth for white spots, and gums for changes, which can signal oral-health problems.