The key to maintaining your child’s beautiful smile lies in more than simply brushing twice a day—the foods she eats, how her teeth are developing, and regular visits to the dentist all contribute to keeping your child’s mouth healthy, says green dentist and KIWI Advisory Board member Fred Pockrass, D.D.S. Here’s what you need to know about taking care of your child’s teeth, naturally.
Dental development—what’s going on in there anyway?
You might think that caring for your child’s teeth doesn’t start until she begins teething, but even before your child is born, her teeth are developing, says Pockrass. “Tooth calcification begins around the fourth fetal month and continues until about two years old,” he says. This means that if you’re pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, you need to make sure you aren’t missing out on key nutrients, like calcium and phosphorus (both of which you can find in dairy products), which are essential to tooth development. Plus, be sure to continue with routine dental exams—Pockrass recommends seeing a dental hygienist every three months to keep any gum infection under control, since periodontal disease has actually been linked to premature labor.
Once a baby is born, teeth will begin to break through the gums at around 6 to 8 months—these are his baby, or primary teeth. There are a total of 20 primary teeth and once they start sprouting, they’ll continue to come through about one per month until your child is 3 years old, says Pockrass. As this painful process begins, you may want to look into a natural teething remedy. Pockrass recommends using a homeopathic remedy containing chamomile, like Boiron’s Camilia, to ease discomfort and irritability.
Children then enter what’s called a mixed dentition stage—this lasts from when their permanent teeth start to come in, at around 6 years old, until age 12 to 13. At that point, your child will have 28 of his 32 permanent teeth before, finally, his wisdom teeth begin to come through between the ages of 17 and 21.
Start seeing a dentist sooner rather than later
While most kids have their first visit with a dentist at about 2 years old, you should take your baby to a pediatric dentist six months after the appearance of the first tooth, Pockrass says. “People have the misconceived idea that the primary teeth aren’t that important because you lose them anyway,” he explains. “But there are a lot of good reasons to keep the baby teeth healthy: They help kids chew food properly, which aids in digestion, and can even affect speech and articulation.” Plus, baby teeth are essential for guiding the permanent teeth into place and allow for the proper alignment and development of the dental arches—“It’s not just bones that are keeping your jaw aligned, but your teeth, too,” Pockrass says.
Another important reason to see a dentist in that first year? To learn how to properly care for her teeth, says Steven G. Goldberg, D.D.S., who practices in Boca Raton, Florida. “Many times, parents don’t know how to clean them,” he says. “And it’s really important to clean teeth as soon as they come in, or even before.” For infants, simply wipe the teeth and gums with a warm washcloth after your child finishes eating—not only does it keep the mouth clean, says Goldberg, it’ll help her get used to the feeling of someone touching her teeth, which may help to ease anxiety on visits to the dentist.
At this age, you may also want to discuss the use of a pacifier with your baby’s dentist, or her thumb-sucking habit, says Shahrzad Sami, D.D.S., an integrative pediatric dentist and orthodontist based in Los Angeles. While babies have a natural urge to suck their thumbs, it can end up causing damage to the alignment of their teeth, so Sami recommends getting your child on a pacifier at the first sign of thumb sucking if possible. Just make sure to start weaning them off the pacifier starting at age 2—that’s when it becomes more of a habit and something they’re just doing to comfort themselves, she says.
And if you’re having problems with breastfeeding, you might want to check in with a pediatric dentist even before your baby’s teeth start to come in, says Sami. It might mean that your baby’s frenum—the thin muscle that attaches the tongue to the lower jaw or the upper gums to the upper lip—is too tight, making it difficult for her to latch on.
Holistic dentistry—what is it and how do you find a dentist who practices it?
As any parent can attest, finding someone you can trust to take care of your child’s health and well-being can be tough, and as Sami says, many dentists may claim to be holistic, but aren’t. “Holistic dentistry has really become sort of a trend,” she says. Like holistic physicians, holistic or biological dentists believe that your teeth are an integral part of your body, and therefore, your overall health. That means that your oral and dental health can actually impact other processes. “[As a holistic dentist] your goal should be to get your patient to the best place he or she can be with his or her body overall,” says Sami. Here are a few questions to ask to see if your dentist’s ideas line up with yours:
- What will you cover in the first exam? “Generally, most pediatric dentists take between 3 and 7 minutes to do an exam, and in my opinion it’s impossible to catch everything in 3 to 7 minutes,” says Sami. Some subjects the dentist should cover: The health of baby and permanent teeth, jaw deviation, asymmetry, and development, sleep quality and positions, posture, airway and breathing issues, materials he’ll be using, and the consideration of the rest of the body when it comes to prevention and treatment. He should also talk to you about your child’s diet, she says. “Not just necessarily sweets, but what your child is eating for each meal, how many fruits and vegetables she eats every day, how much dairy, protein, and carbohydrates—all of these things help us to get a more indepth look at the child as a whole,” explains Sami.
- What types of materials do you use? Some of the big ones to avoid: Dental amalgam—a material made of copper, silver, and mercury that’s used in silver dental fillings to repair decayed teeth and has been linked to a host of health and environmental concerns; fluoride—whose use should be avoided when possible, says Sami; and BPA, found in mouth guards, sealants that are applied to cavity-prone areas, and other dental appliances.
- What’s your policy on x-rays? While some holistic dentists may avoid taking x-rays entirely, it’s not necessarily better for your child, says Sami. “If I don’t take x-rays before I start a case, I’m just going in blindly and I might miss a lot of things,” she says. “Your dentist should really take more of an individualistic approach—if he takes them every 6 months, regardless of the patient’s history, that’s not beneficial either.” Sami uses a machine that exposes patients to the lowest amount of radiation possibly, while Pockrass opts for digital x-raying—machines that use a sensor instead of film to capture an image and expose you to 75 to 90 percent less radiation than regular machines.
- Do you perform root canals? Commonly used in conventional dentistry, root canal therapy is a process where a decayed or infected tooth is stripped of its nerve and pulp, cleaned of any bacteria, and sealed. Unfortunately, says Sami, the chemicals used to sterilize the tooth and kill the nerve (and surrounding tissue) are toxic, and can actually wind up leaking into the body through the root of the tooth. How your dentist chooses to treat an infected tooth may vary, but a lot of dentists will opt to remove the tooth—and any infection-causing bacteria—entirely, to prevent infection from spreading to other parts of the body.
As your child gets older and more of her baby teeth start to come in, you can begin brushing her teeth with a pea-size amount of non-fluoride, natural toothpaste. Pockrass recommends using one containing xylitol—a plant-derived natural sweetener that has been shown to be antibacterial and can help prevent decay. (One to try: Xlear Kid’s Spry Tooth Gel with Xylitol, $6, xlear.com).
After age 2, many conventional dentists will recommend switching to a toothpaste containing fluoride since it can add to the enamel of the tooth and help repair decay; however, most holistic dentists will avoid using it if possible, says Sami. She uses a special calcium phosphate toothpaste in her office and recommends that parents use a non-fluoridated toothpaste at home. (One to try: Kiss My Face; $4 for four ounces, Amazon.) The important thing is to make sure your child is brushing twice a day for at least two minutes, to remove any bacteria that might lead to decay, and eating a nutritionally well-balanced diet.
And don’t forget to floss! To get your child in the habit at an early age, Goldberg recommends kids begin flossing at age 6, when the permanent teeth start to come in. “There’s usually a lot of space between baby teeth,” Goldberg says. “But when permanent teeth come in, they’re touching side by side, and there are more tight spaces that a toothbrush can’t reach, so you have to floss to get rid of that plaque and bacteria between teeth as well.”
Watch what you eat
As your child’s teeth begin to grow, what she eats plays one of the most important roles in keeping her teeth healthy, says Pockrass. Calcium is the main mineral you want to get, since it’s essential in forming and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, and without it, it increases your child’s risk of tooth decay and periodontal disease. Since the body doesn’t produce calcium on its own, you have to get it from food—milk and dairy products are main sources, but you can also get it from almonds, tofu, and dark, leafy greens, like kale and broccoli.
To ensure your child’s body is absorbing that calcium, make sure he’s taking in plenty of fat-soluble vitamins as well, like vitamins A, D3, and K2, says Nadine Artemis, author of Holistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums. You can find vitamin A primarily in liver and fish oils, as well as milk from grass-fed cows, pastured eggs, sweet potatoes, and spinach while vitamin D3 is primarily found in animal products, like tuna, cheese, and eggs, so if you’re vegan, Pockrass recommends your child take a supplement of 5000 IU weekly starting at age 6. (Though be sure to check in with your pediatrician before giving your child any supplements.)
As far as sugar goes, while it can contribute to the formation of cavities, it’s not what causes them, says Goldberg. “Sugar causes cavities when you have bacteria on the tooth that feeds off of that sugar, creating acid that eats away at the tooth,” he says. And it’s prolonged exposure from foods that cling to your teeth that increase the chances of decay. “For example, chocolate is actually better for your teeth than potato chips—it has more sugar, but it washes away with saliva more easily than chips, which get stuck in the grooves of your teeth. So be mindful of what you’re eating, not just what’s in it.” The best way to prevent those bacteria from building is to clear away food residue by brushing, but in a pinch, you can have your child rinse with water or, if you don’t have a toothbrush handy, even chew sugar-free gum.
Ultimately, if your child’s eating nutritious, whole foods, he’ll be getting all the nutrients he needs, says Artemis. “The key to a healthy mouth is actually really simple: Get rid of the things that are inhibiting the body, like processed foods, and eat real foods to ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals necessary for building strong teeth.”
Fluoride: To use or not to use?
In general, the medical and scientific communities are divided on the use of fluoride—a chemical that’s not only found in toothpaste, but is added to our water supply to prevent tooth decay—with agencies like the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocating for community water fluoridation.
Those in the holistic community, however, argue that water fluoridation is a form of mass medication, without individuals’ consent or knowledge, and that not only is it ineffective, it can actually pose health risks. And even the CDC acknowledges that any anti-cavity benefit from the chemical is found in topical use only—not by ingesting it. Typically, holistic dentists will argue against any type of ingested fluoride, while some, like Sami, may opt to use it topically on a case-by-case basis. “But,” she says, “if the dentist you’re considering seeing uses it regularly, or recommends fluoride toothpaste, they are most likely not holistic.”
Pediatric dentist versus non
So what’s the difference between a pediatric dentist and a regular one? It comes down to training, says Sami. “We have an extra two to three years of specialty training that we go through to learn specifically about kids, including their physical and behavioral development,” she says. Sami looks at a slew of things on a baby’s first visit: How the teeth are coming in, upper and lower jaw development, sleep quality and positions, as well as general exams of the head and neck. She’ll also talk to parents about nutrition and diet, habit counseling (pacifier use and thumb sucking), and preventative dental care.