CINCINNATI -- Did you know you can pass the bacteria that cause tooth decay to your children?
That's right: Cavities can be contagious.
Tooth decay is an infectious disease, and it remains the most prevalent chronic childhood disease in the U.S. It's preventable but still affects roughly half of our children by age 10.
To combat cavities, parents should be brushing their children's teeth at least twice a day as soon as their first tooth erupts, experts agree. That first, pearly white tooth is also the signal their little one is ready for the dentist.
If these statistics and recommendations surprise you, you're not alone. Groups such as the American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry say parents are somewhat misinformed about children's oral health.
"There are a lot of misconceptions," said pediatric dentist Lisa Rudolph. "Health findings change and recommendations shift. … And as a result, parents have a lot of questions about what's best for their child."
Rudolph treats patients at Montgomery Pediatric Dentistry. She also holds a master's degree in public health and is the current board president of the Children's Oral Health Network and founding chairperson of Junior League of Cincinnati's GrinUp pediatric oral health project.
Much of her advocacy work has centered on educating local parents and increasing access to affordable oral health care in Cincinnati.
There's a reason for that: Dental care remains the single most common unmet health-care need among Ohio's children, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
In addition to helping children brush twice a day and learn good oral hygiene habits, Rudolph said it's imperative that parents find a "dental home" for their children by age 1 and stick with those routine checkups. Those early appointments are as much about educating parents as they are about examining the child's teeth, she said.
"Many parents think they don't need to take their child to the dentist until they're 2 or 3 years old, but we would like to see them much earlier than that," she said. "It's important to find a dental home for them as soon as their first tooth comes in."
Because the needs and risk factors for each child vary, parents can consult with their child's dentist on important topics like when to start using fluoride and about other preventative measures like sealants. They can also get instruction on proper brushing and flossing techniques.
And if you're worried about your child's behavior at the dentist, don't. Rudolph said dentists, especially those who specialize in pediatrics, realize the average 1-year-old isn't going to sit still for a dental exam.
"They're going to be a little squirrely, and we expect that," she said. "We make it work."
Healthy food choices and water consumption are also huge in the fight against tooth decay, according to Rudolph.
She recommends kids steer clear of foods that stick to their teeth, such as fruit snacks, and she suggests parents limit the amount of snacking their kids do during the day. When it comes to sugary drinks and carb-loaded food, it's the frequency of exposure that increases the risk of tooth decay.
"Things that get stuck in a child's teeth are the most dangerous," she explained. "But repeatedly coating their teeth throughout the day, even with things like juice, isn't good either."
Kids should also drink water throughout the day. It rinses teeth and is a much better alternative to sugar-filled beverages that can contribute to tooth decay, she said.
In fact, the slogan this year for National Children's Dental Health Month is "Choose Tap Water for a Sparkling Smile." Tap water has the added benefit of fluoride, which helps prevent cavities.
The American Dental Association sponsors the national awareness campaign each February.
In order to help spread the message this month, Rudolph shared these additional pediatric oral health tips for local parents:
Practice what you preach
Parents should lead by example and practice good oral health habits, according to Rudolph. Simply watching their parents brush and floss properly will help children learn to do it, she said.
Passing along tooth decay-causing bacteria to your children is also possible, though many people aren't aware of it. Rudolph suggests parents take care of their own possible tooth decay and oral health needs before their baby is born. She also discourages parents from sharing eating utensils with their little ones or "cleaning" their baby's pacifier by sticking it in their own mouth.
"Parents can definitely transmit that bacteria to their children," she reiterated. "It puts them at greater risk for tooth decay."
Kids really do need to brush for a full two minutes (and floss)
Getting a child to sit still and concentrate on anything for two minutes can be a challenge, but that's how long kids should brush, experts agree.
Parents should "assist heavily" with brushing until their child is about 6, Rudolph said. For older kids, parents should consistently check their handiwork to ensure they're brushing on their own properly.
With small children, she admits those thorough brushing sessions can be a challenge. Parents can make it a little more fun by singing a song or giving their child a separate toothbrush to hold on their own.
"It can be a battle," said Rudolph, who has two small children of her own. "It's a necessary evil, though. The alternative is much worse."
Flossing is also necessary once two of your child's baby teeth are touching, she added.
Don't think of baby teeth as temporary
Kids don't keep their baby teeth forever, but that doesn't mean parents or children should take them for granted. Kids need to keep them healthy and intact for eating and other functions, like spacing.
Rudolph said far too many people consider a young child's primary teeth not as important as permanent, adult teeth.
It's important that parents make dental health a priority early in their child's life, she said. For parents who can't afford it, there are resources available here in Greater Cincinnati. Qualifying families can get dental coverage through Medicaid, she said, and in-school dental clinics and sealant programs are becoming more prevalent on both sides of the Ohio River.
For example, Cincinnati Dental Society's Oral Health Foundation offers free basic dental care to qualifying children at its Delta Dental Center at Oyler School.
"It's a real problem, and that's why it's so important to educate parents and improve access," Rudolph said of tooth decay in children. "It's 100 percent preventable, but you have to start early."