Six Mistakes Parents Make: Advice for Parents!

Dr. Lee Ostler
Dec 21, 2016


Did you know tooth decay is the #1 most common childhood disease? I know – with ear infections and asthma out there, its difficult to think of a cavity as a “disease” – but it is, and it IS the most common childhood disease. It’s bacterial. It’s contagious. It’s painful. And. It’s. Totally. Preventable!

The sad part is that too many parents are not doing the job they signed up for, by not making sure their kids teeth and smile starts off healthy – and stays that way!

A parent’s role is very pivotal. It starts early and lasts through teenage years – in an age-dependent fashion. It’s unfortunate that so many parents make so many mistakes when it comes to raising kids with decay-free teeth. Here are the six classic mistakes parents make when it comes to their child’s oral health …

  • Wait too late.
  • Aren’t hands-on.
  • Don’t set expectations.
  • Don’t do inspections.
  • Don’t see that children get professional care.
  • Don’t model good oral health.

I’ll get to the solutions below, but first let’s tackle the excuses …

Even or especially in circumstances where access to care is difficult or finances place a strain on a families ability to have regular dental checkups, it costs nothing to brush teeth, control diet, and use topical fluoride rinse. As well, it also costs nothing for parents to be more involved and proactive in their children’s oral hygiene behavior and control of diet!.

So often I see parents blaming their young child for the tooth decay they have – in a “serves you right” sort of way – when it is abundantly apparent that they aren’t personally involved in the child’s oral hygiene, are very lax or even permissive when it comes to sugary food supervision. Not only that but they can afford vacations, sports, boats, and smart phones but won’t budget in a periodic visit at the dentist. It’s even more maddening when the family has dental insurance – and won’t use it! (Okay – off my soap box! But hopefully the point is made!)

What’s called for is greater involvement in a child’s oral health. Here are some ideas for countering the mistakes parents make.

Start right with some “Happy Visits” with the dentist to help your child accommodate and get used to the idea of dental care. It really does help to get life and oral health started on the right foot. With 42% of children aged 2 to 11 having tooth decay, getting off to a good start to prevent these problems is so important. Need we say more? Well … yes. And here’s why it matters …

There are many factors at play that cause early childhood decay. Probably the two most important ones are oral hygiene behaviors and diet. Bacteria in the mouth eat or break down carbohydrates in the mouth and produce acids which dissolves calcium and other minerals out of the tooth. This creates tooth decay. Bacteria present with a rich food source spells trouble!

Modern diets that are rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars are like jet fuel for bacteria. Rapid metabolism and a constant food supply are bad enough. But when flossing and tooth brushing practices are minimal or lacking each day, tooth decay and gum disease can quickly progress. When this happens, expensive and painful consequences happen.

What should parents do?

  1. Start young at home. Begin early to monitor, coach, and expect good oral hygiene at home. Model good practices and participate together. Don’t just send the child off to do it themselves and believe it is happening. Inspect results and be part of the process in an age-dependent way.
  2. Be hands-on. Parents can stand behind their child while facing the bathroom counter/mirror and with parents hands under chin and the child looking up the parent can gently brush the child’s teeth (to make sure it happens), then hand the brush to the child and have them brush on their own. This way the job gets done, AND you are teaching them to also do a good job. As your children get older, you can step away bit by bit and be more of an inspector, with perhaps a weekly turn at the job itself.
  3. Expect. Set expectations that oral hygiene happens. Set the expectations and that it is just part of living, a duty of having a body, being in the family, and so forth. Don’t yell, punish, or threaten. Just expect. “You may play when your teeth are clean! Period. I don’t really care how many times it takes!” (Repeated as many times as needed.)
  4. Inspect. Take enough interest in your children’t oral health to establish accountability. I mean actually look in the mouth, at the teeth, and inspect. Smell the breath. Look for the ‘cottage cheesy’ stuff that accumulates at the gum line. If it doesn’t look right, or you see bleedy puffy gums, brown spots or holes, or slimy biofilm on their teeth – take action. Have them use their thumbnail to scrape up on their teeth from the gum line and see if any gunk gathers on their finger nail. (Not yours. It’s their bacteria – let them see it or better yet have them wipe it on a cracker and offer it back to them to eat! Yuck!). If it does or you suspect less than a good job, its back to the bathroom to brush again. And again. As long as it takes! This is how you teach and model. Without making them wrong! It’s just a matter of fact, not a judgment of character.
  5. Get early and regular professional care. There are too many things that can go wrong from early on to leave this to chance. Baby teeth are important. They are not expendable. They serve an important purpose. They help guide adult teeth into the correct position and help to define the development of the airway (think childhood sleep apnea, hyperactivity, bedwetting – oh yeah!).
  6. Be healthy and model yourself. Do a good job yourself. Let your children see that you jump through the hoops of good oral hygiene. You may have to intentionally do this out in ‘public’ family view Let them see you using floss, brushing your teeth, using water irrigation (Waterpic), chewing xylitol gum, talking about fresh breath, brushing before bedtime, etc.

Understand that the bugs your child has in their mouth are likely yours. Or their siblings. Or the dogs! DNA analysis of oral bacteria has now confirmed what we’ve long thought – that we share our oral bacteria with “vertical transmission” (parent/caregiver – child), as well as with “horizontal transmission” – from sibling to sibling. Yes – that’s disgusting, but true! These critters are transmissible and contagious! Bummer.

On the bright side, tooth decay is entirely preventable. You just have to control the bacteria biofilm and the acid levels in the mouth and oversee good oral hygiene and a better diet. Additional measures of topical fluoride, use of xylitol (gum, mint, paste, etc), and regular visits to the dentist – also help assure a great journey for your child’s teeth and smile.

Just remember, it’s NOT true that baby teeth are expendable and unnecessary and that you can disregard them because adult teeth are coming. Problems now usually means problems later.

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