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Health-Promoting Hygiene Habits

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Dental Hygiene

toothbrushesIf you had to pick one set of health-promoting hygiene habits to teach children above all others, in our view, it should be good dental care habits. This is the case because good dental hygiene is absolutely vital to supporting people's overall physical health. Dental care is important in childhood, and becomes increasingly vital as people age. Adults sometimes die as a result of complications of dental problems that were not properly handled. As well, poor dental hygiene in adults is associated with increased risk of multiple serious chronic diseases, including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and complications of pregnancy including preterm birth. Thus, it is extremely important that children are taught to take proper and effective care of their teeth from an early age, so that these behaviors can become second nature to them, and the more serious health consequences associated with poor dental care can be avoided.

Children lose their juvenile teeth in middle childhood, only to see them replaced with their adult teeth. Noting this natural transition, some parents do not see the urgency with regard to teaching children good dental hygiene from their earliest years. The thinking is that juvenile teeth are just "practice teeth"; if children get cavities while young, it doesn't count, because those early teeth will fall out and be replaced. The serious flaw in this way of thinking is that hygiene behaviors (or lack thereof) have a lot of inertia; once learned a particular way, they are hard to alter. Like adults, children too can become set in their ways. If children don't learn to take care of their teeth at a very young age, it is much harder for them to change their bad habits when they enter middle-childhood. They will likely persist in the poor dental care habits they developed as young children, only now their mistakes will have permanent consequences.

Parents should be teaching children to brush their teeth at least twice a day and to floss between their teeth at least once a day. Children will probably need supervision and guidance with regard to their brushing and flossing until about age 9 or 10, so as to make sure they are thoroughly and correctly cleaning all parts of their teeth and gums. Tooth brushing should be a part of both morning and night-time routines. As much as is possible, children should also be taught to brush their teeth after meals or sweets.

To entice younger, disinterested brushers, parents can buy special toothbrushes with cartoon characters on the handle, or electronic toothbrushes that spin, play music, etc. Providing children with these kinds of gadgets certainly isn't mandatory, but it can often help motivate children who are otherwise bored with a regular toothbrush. Caregivers can also purchase toothpaste in kid-friendly flavors or with movie characters printed on the packaging.

As it requires well developed fine motor control to perform, flossing is a somewhat more advanced skill than tooth-brushing. Young children struggling with simply using a toothbrush correctly will almost certainly also have difficulty using floss. For this reason, parents will need to use their judgment regarding when children should be introduced to flossing. Flossing should be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity, however, as it is vital to good dental hygiene and healthy gums. Parents can purchase pre-flossed holders, which are easier to use than traditional long pieces of string floss, in order to make the task easier for little fingers to perform.

Children's dental self-care habits, including tooth-brushing and flossing, need to be supplemented with regular visits to the dentist (according to the schedule recommended by your child's dentist). Dental visits are important as they provide for the early identification and treatment of developing dental problems, and for preventative care treatments which reduce the risk of future dental problems.

As advised by a dentist or orthodontist, older children may require dental retainers or braces so as to straighten or align their teeth. Before investing in expensive orthodontic procedures, parents should determine if their children are mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with cleaning and maintaining orthodontic devices. Most of the time, caring for braces requires far more effort and commitment than does regular daily dental hygiene. Children who need constant reminders to brush and to floss their teeth or who often resist other daily hygiene tasks may not yet be mature enough for such treatments. Parents will want to consult with dental professionals regarding their concerns and the urgency of the child's need for treatment.