Sure, we’re all guilty of occasionally letting the kids fall asleep before they brush their teeth. Or forgetting to nag them about flossing. While the occasional slip is nothing to lose sleep over, there are a few bad dental habits your kids really should stop (and that means you, too!). Here’s how to overcome the most common dental no-nos to ensure your child develops healthy habits for the long haul.
Most kids stop this behavior on their own by the time they reach school age. But thumb-sucking after permanent teeth come in (around age 6) may cause problems with alignment of the teeth and proper growth of the mouth.
The fix: If your child’s still struggling after permanent teeth come in, use a positive approach, says Bill Lieberman, DDS, a pediatric dentist in private practice in Red Bank and Colts Neck and associate clinical professor of pediatric dentistry at New York University. Help him wean off by restricting it to his room, or only on certain days of the week. He can earn gold stars or additional privileges for success. Remember to reward good behavior, not punish for slip-ups.
“It’s actually not the easiest thing for a kid to do,” says Lieberman. “Some kids don’t have the manual dexterity until they’re about 10 or older.”
The fix: If your kids are younger, stand behind them and use a floss holder to clean for them. As kids gain dexterity, interdental cleaners (which look like tiny brushes) or an electric tool such as a Waterpik are good options. “These tools are easier to use than floss for most kids—and adults,” says Lieberman. Aim for at least once a day.
Your teen son is growing like a weed, so he’s always eating. But grazing all day causes plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, to sit for longer periods of time on teeth, producing acid that attacks enamel. “Even ‘healthy’ snacks like chewy granola bars and dried fruit are problems because they adhere to teeth for a long time,” says Jessica Lee, DDS, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and chair of the division of pediatric and public health at the University of North Carolina.
The fix: Help your child choose better snacks, such as cheese, carrots, nuts or apples with peanut butter. Choose high protein foods that are more filling and less likely to stick and cause cavities than sugary snacks, says Lee.
Beverages like energy drinks, iced tea and soda, which can be sipped all day from a bottle with a screw-on cap, are also no-nos. “Kids sip on these between classes or at sports events, and that constant sugar on the teeth is feeding the bugs that cause cavities,” says Lee.
The fix: Teach your kid to drink any sweet beverage in one sitting, which is far better than exposing the teeth to sugar for a prolonged period of time. Cans are actually better than bottles because they can’t be closed, so you’re forced to drink it at once. Better yet, substitute with good old-fashioned water.
CHEWING ON THINGS
Sometimes kids unconsciously chew on pencils or gnaw on their fingers. But there’s potential to chip or break teeth, or even puncture a cheek, with an object, says Lee. Chewing on ice can crack teeth, too.
The fix: “Chewing is sometimes a stress reliever, so you don’t want to take it away altogether and cause more anxiety,” says Lee. She suggests substituting an alternative to keep the mouth busy, such as chewing sugar-free gum. Gum also helps produce saliva, which buffers the teeth from cavities. As for ice, there’s no safe way to chew it, so encourage kids to let it melt in their mouths, instead. If they can’t resist chomping it, they need to skip it altogether.
NOT WEARING A MOUTH GUARD FOR SPORTS
According to one study in Pediatrics, 30 percent of kids experience a dental injury by age 14. Yet, one survey by the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) found that 67 percent of parents admitted their kids don’t wear a mouth guard while playing sports.
The fix: This one is non-negotiable, says Lieberman. All kids should be wearing mouth guards for contact and organized sports such as football, wrestling, baseball, hockey and soccer, plus recreational activities like mountain biking. In fact, a contact sport means any activity in which one player is likely to have his or her face come into contact with the pavement or another hard object, says AAO. Make sure coaches are also enforcing the rules. Both custom and boil and bite types work.
GETTING A LIP OR TONGUE PIERCING
Your teen may clamor for a lip or tongue piercing, but there’s a significant risk for infection (after all, there’s a lot of bacteria in the mouth), as well as the potential for cracked teeth, gum disease and choking. Piercings also interfere with normal eating and speaking.
The fix: Ask your child’s dentist to explain the risks and show photos of the damage. “Sometimes kids won’t hear what a parent is saying, but they’ll listen to me,” says Lee. If they still insist, don’t forget: You’re the parent!