Promoting Oral Health
By Marcia Manter

Dental cavities are the most common childhood disease. These cause pain and infections, and reduce children’s ability to learn. Dental problems result in more school absences than any other childhood disease. There are many reasons why children get cavities, but the disease is entirely preventable through fluoride, education, hygiene, and nutrition. Knowing what to do to prevent cavities is important for teachers and parents. We’ve compiled the following tips to help you take care of children’s oral health from infancy to school age.

• Keep baby’s gums clean. After feeding baby, wipe her gums with a clean, soft cloth or gauze pad.

• Put baby to sleep by rocking, singing, and comforting. Putting baby to bed with a bottle of milk or fruit juice allows liquid to “pool,” which causes harmful acids to form in the mouth. These acids eat away at the enamel.

• Limit the spread of germs. Caregivers and parents shouldn’t taste food before putting it in a baby’s mouth, clean a pacifier by putting into their mouth, or share a cup with baby.

• Use a clean pacifier. Never dip the nipple in anything sweet or harmful such as sugar, honey, alcohol, or juice.

• Limit sugar intake. Offer only a limited amount of juice—two to three ounces per day—and always avoid sweetened, packaged drinks and soft drinks.

• Comfort teething babies by using frozen teething rings and frozen clean, wet washcloths. Cookies, crackers, or zweibach shouldn’t be used to ease irritations from teething. These foods create starches, which also remain in baby’s mouth and produce harmful acids.

• Invite a dentist to your classroom or take a field trip to the dentist. Involve dental professionals in screening for signs of toddler’s cavities, and learn how to do it yourself as a regular practice. Invite parents to learn how to screen for signs of cavities as well.

• Clean teeth and gums with a soft-bristle toothbrush. Once primary teeth have emerged, teachers and parents can brush toddlers’ teeth using specially made toothbrushes for baby teeth and a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste. Each child’s toothbrush should be covered and stored separately. Be sure to replace the brush every three months or after a child has been ill.

• Encourage toddlers to drink water, milk, and only two to four ounces of juice during meals and snack times. Do not allow the toddler to drink from a sippy cup throughout the day. Again, do everything to keep foods from “pooling” in children’s mouths.

• Create a “safe teeth” environment by selecting and installing car seats appropriately and finding toys, furniture, and other classroom supplies with soft corners and edges.

• In case of injury. If a child breaks a tooth, rinse the mouth with warm water, hold a cold compress on the injured tooth, collect pieces of the broken tooth, and call the dentist.

Preschoolers and School-agers
• Practice brushing. Preschoolers should brush their teeth at least twice a day using a tiny piece of fluoride toothpaste. Model brushing techniques by brushing your teeth right along with the children.

• Make brushing fun! Incorporate music and games to reinforce the rhythm of brushing.

• Incorporate dental health into all areas of the classroom. Keep oral health books in the reading area (Brushing Well and Food for Healthy Teeth from Capstone Press,, are good choices), use the motions of brushing and flossing to create dances or other games, develop stories about tooth characters, or make paintings using toothbrushes.

• Visit the dentist for a check up. Continue regular classroom screening of children’s teeth for cavities and injuries.

• Serve “teeth healthy” foods such as vegetables, meats, grains, and fruits. Try to limit sweet desserts, candy, chips, and crackers and avoid using these foods as treats.

• Use car seats and bike helmets to prevent injuries to the teeth.

Marcia A. Manter is Region VII Head Start Health Specialist, serving Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. She supports Head Start and Early Head Start quality oral health services through research, speakers, partnerships with oral health professionals, and demonstration projects.