Although tooth decay is preventable, it is still one of the most predominant chronic conditions affecting children in the United States. Approximately 20 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 and 13 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 have at least one cavity that needs treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These percentages are twice as high for children from low-income families.
These statistics show why it's critical that parents understand the benefits of fluoride and how fluoride for babies — along with other good oral care practices — can ensure their child has a healthy smile.
The Magic of Fluoride
Tooth enamel is made up of calcium and phosphorus, which are minerals that are lost and gained on a daily basis. Acids produced by the bacteria in your mouth cause this loss of minerals, also called demineralization. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), fluoride combines with the minerals in enamel to form fluorapatite, which makes the enamel stronger against acids.
Fluoride can fortify enamel from the inside of the tooth or from the outside. For example, fluoride found in toothpastes or topical fluoride gel treatments binds with the minerals on the outside of the tooth, helping replace lost minerals — a process known as remineralization — and making the enamel stronger as a result. Fluoride found in water, foods and supplements enters the body through the bloodstream and becomes a part of any teeth that are still developing within the jaw.
Ingesting too much fluoride while the teeth are still developing can cause fluorosis: a discoloration or pitting of the enamel. This is why following your dentist's and pediatrician's guidelines for fluoride use is so important.
Fluoride for Babies
Parents should begin cleaning their baby's mouth as soon as they come home from the hospital by wiping their gums with gauze or a washcloth. As soon as that first tooth appears, it's at risk for decay. That's why the ADA recommends using a bit of fluoride toothpaste on your baby's first tooth.
When helping your child brush their teeth twice a day, use a smear (no bigger than a grain of rice) of fluoride toothpaste for children younger than 3 years old and a pea-sized amount for children 3 to 6 years old. Have your child spit out the toothpaste as soon as they are able to do so.
Topical fluoride applications, such as fluoride gels or varnishes, are routine procedures for most children during their dental checkup appointments. Varnishes are easier to apply to the teeth of younger children, allowing treatments to begin at an early age.
Other Sources of Fluoride
Fluoride added to community water supplies has been a safe and effective way to prevent tooth decay for over 70 years. TheCDC named fluoridation one of the top 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. Its widespread success is due to the fact that it is an easy means of delivering fluoride to all people within a community, regardless of age, income, education or access to dental care.
Supplements prescribed by dentists or pediatricians can also provide fluoride, especially when fluoridated water isn't available. Sometimes fluoride is added to baby formula. Before using these sources of fluoride, ask your local officials if your water supply is fluoridated and in what amount. Your doctor or dentist will take this into consideration before prescribing any additional fluoride supplements.
Every parent hopes their child will grow up with healthy teeth and a beautiful smile. One of the best ways to ensure your children will have cavity-free teeth is to follow your dentist's recommendations for fluoride use.