, Salem, MA

February 4, 2014

Column: Smiling through Children’s Dental Health Month

Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — My dentist tells me my teeth have deep roots. That’s why, no matter how many shots of Novocaine I’m given, I tend to feel every zap and zing of the dentist’s drill, causing me to jump convulsively in the chair, even to cry out, no matter how stoic I try to be.

Although I sincerely trust in my dentist’s expertise, as well as her compassion, when I needed a crown a few years back, I wasn’t sure how I’d survive the procedure. I asked my then-teenaged daughter if she wouldn’t mind selecting some music for me to listen to in the dentist’s chair, to help me relax.

You can imagine my surprise when I pushed play on my iPod and heard the Nightwish tune “7 Days to the Wolves” followed by Breaking Benjamin’s “Dear Agony” and then a song by the group Disturbed that was appropriately titled “Another Way to Die.”

Turning up the volume in my ears to drown out the noise of the dentist’s drill did relax me somewhat. So did laughing over my daughter’s thoughtfully created, yet demonic, play list.

February is Children’s Dental Health Month, annually sponsored by the American Dental Association, which prompts me to recall my own miserable childhood dental experiences and to want to get the point across to parents: When a child cries out in pain she’s probably really in pain and not just being a wuss.

I have vivid memories of being “calmed down” in the dentist’s waiting room with back issues of Highlights magazine and hunting for the hatchet in that hidden object puzzle while summoning the courage to enter the torture room. When my ordeal was over, I’d be given the honor of selecting a tiny prize from the treasure chest for “extra good patients.” But those prizes were chintzy, certainly not worth what I’d been through; and the honor was nearly always eclipsed by my mom making my next dreaded appointment, which would undoubtedly result in the next dreaded filling. As a kid, I wasn’t capable of expressing my feelings about that vicious cycle of injustice, like I am now.

I’ve heard it said that parents should brush their children’s teeth for the first seven years of life because kids lack the dexterity to do the job properly. This isn’t something that my parents knew to do, nor is it something I did with my own kids, but it sounds like it might be worth trying if you can get your kids to comply. And that’s a big “if.”

Focusing on preventing cavities with good oral hygiene, I asked Allison Evans, registered dental hygienist at Cabot Dental Associates in Beverly, for instructions about how to brush a young child’s teeth. Here’s what she said:

“The easiest way to brush a young child’s teeth is to start with them standing in front of the sink. If needed, have them stand on a step stool to accommodate height discrepancies. Next stand directly behind the child and instruct him/her to tilt his/her head back into your chest. This gives the brusher better control and vision.

“Brush the child’s teeth, using a circular motion on each tooth, without toothpaste for 30 seconds on the bottom and 30 seconds on the top. Then rinse the toothbrush with water and apply a small smear of toothpaste, no bigger than pea-sized, and re-brush both arches for another 30 seconds each. Toothpaste without fluoride, also known as training toothpaste, is recommended for children who haven’t mastered spitting.

“I have found with my patients and my own child that the first round of brushing without toothpaste is quite helpful to stop the ‘I-need-to-spit’ just when you’re getting into a good brushing rhythm.

“Some children love to brush their teeth and some don’t. My best advice is to try to make a game of it. It is sometimes helpful to tell children that you will start first and then they can finish up or say that after you brush their teeth, they can brush yours. If all else fails, positive reinforcement, such as a sticker chart, can be helpful, too.”

In addition to brushing children’s teeth twice a day (or nagging them to do it), dentists say that kids should be helped or instructed to floss daily. Plastic flossers are easier to use than regular floss. Flossing cleans out the teeth and brushing brushes it away.

Another issue I want to call to parents’ attention is a condition called fluorosis that’s been on the rise in recent years. Fluorosis is a mottling of tooth enamel. It appears as white spots, white streaks, or in extreme cases, as brown markings on a person’s teeth. The condition is caused by kids ingesting too much fluoride while their teeth are forming and not yet erupted, perhaps by swallowing too much fluoride toothpaste.

Because many of our water supplies in the U.S. are fluoridated and we also use fluoride toothpaste, mouth rinses and other products, fluorosis may be a sign that “too much of a good thing isn’t good.” Parents might want to consult their child’s dentist or pediatrician about what is the right amount of fluoride for their child’s age, weight and risk of tooth decay.

Happy Children’s Dental Health Month! I hope it brings you plenty to smile about and that your February will be free of cavities, crowns, tooth extractions and root canals (unless, of course, you’re a dentist)!

Mary Alice Cookson is a parenting magazine editor and columnist. She welcomes comments at