Good dental habits are especially important for children

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. Cavities, also known as caries or tooth decay, are one of the most common, but preventable, chronic diseases of childhood. Dentists recommend that establishing good oral hygiene and diet habits in children early on can set them on a course for good dental health for life.

“As a general rule, parents should start practicing dental care with their children as soon as the first tooth pops into their mouth,” said Col. Thomas Stark, chief of pediatric dentistry at the Wiesbaden Army Dental Clinic. “For infants and toddlers up to age 3, that means brushing twice per day using a minimal smear or rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste on a soft bristled toothbrush. A pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste is appropriate for children age 3 or older.”

“Parents should also begin flossing as soon as adjacent teeth are touching or in close contact,” Stark added. “Starting this routine early on will reduce bacteria that can harm teeth and will help children get accustomed to dental care as they get older.”

Stark says that while many toddlers and young children want to brush their own teeth, most lack the dexterity to brush and floss all areas well.

“Dentists and dental hygienists recommend that parents assist with oral hygiene practices until the child can demonstrate the ability to independently remove cavity-causing plaque,” Stark said. “When children get used to having their teeth and gums vigorously scrubbed during home care, they are more comfortable having their teeth cleaned and inspected in the dental office.”

According to dental experts, children should start seeing the dentist before their first birthday. The dentist can provide education on topics such as teething, diet, oral hygiene, thumb-sucking or pacifier habits, trauma prevention, fluoride use, and teeth grinding. The dentist will also provide a brief examination to ensure the teeth are coming in properly, and identify any problems early on.

“Some children, and even some adults, do not enjoy going to the dentist,” Stark said. “Dental treatment can be invasive and may involve uncomfortable sensations, strange tastes, and unpleasant sounds. Establishing and implementing good oral hygiene practices and reducing sugar from the diet will help a child maintain a healthy smile and reduce the need for invasive dental procedures.”

In general, dentists recommend children brush their teeth (or have their teeth brushed by the parents) twice a day. That is, once in the morning when they wake up and again before they go to bed, for two minutes each time.

“Setting a two-minute timer for your kids is a good way to make sure they are brushing for the correct amount of time,” added Stark. “Brushing after a sugary snack is also a good idea since bacteria in our mouths convert the sugar and carbohydrates from our diets into an acid. The acid dissolves tooth structure and forms a cavity over time.”

Dental experts also recommend limiting the intake of sugary and starchy foods.

“When you think about it, sugar from the foods and drinks in our diets sticks to our teeth and feeds the bacteria in our mouths that cause tooth decay,” said Stark. “It is important to break the cycle of tooth demineralization by allowing our saliva to neutralize the acid attack. Cutting down on the frequency of snacking will decrease the acidity of our mouths and reduce the chance for a cavity to form.”

Dental providers advise that most cavities are preventable with good oral hygiene and diet practices. In addition to twice-daily brushing, and once-daily flossing and rinsing, families should visit their dentist for regular check-ups.

Eligible military family members can find a dentist through the TRICARE Dental Program. The program is an enrollment-based voluntary dental plan for family members of active-duty service members.

To learn more about the TRICARE Dental Program and covered benefits visit