February is National Children's Dental Health Month - an appropriate time to point out that tooth decay is both common and preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects more than one-fourth of U.S. children ages 2 to 5, and half of children ages 12 to 15.
Parents need to have "cheerful persistence," suggests the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, when a child is uncooperative about teeth-brushing. The job has to get done thoroughly at least twice a day, after breakfast and before bedtime.
Some parents find it helps to switch a tune such as "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" into a personal teeth-brushing song: "Brush, Brush, Brush Your Teeth." Another trick: Hand over a bit of control. Let your little one help pick out a new toothbrush and brush his teeth with water before or after you've finished a thorough cleaning using a pea-sized dab of toothpaste. It also helps to let your child learn by watching his parents or older siblings brush and floss their teeth.
You can also enlist the help of animal characters in books such as "Brush Your Teeth Please" (Reader's Digest, 1993). Or repeat the sing-songy board book "Brush, Brush, Brush!" by Alicia Padron (Children's Press, 2010).
Parental efforts need to start early, says the AAPD. Plaque can form even before teeth erupt, so your baby's gums need to be wiped after feedings. A plus: Your baby will get used to you meddling in his mouth months before brushing begins.
Once that first tooth pops up, it's time for a first dental checkup. At the first visit, a dentist can teach parents how to brush and floss their child's teeth, how to prevent tooth decay and what to look for as the child grows.
To ease fears before dental checkups, read "The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist" by Stan and Jan Berenstain (Random House, 1981).
The dental association also suggests these tips to protect against tooth decay:
Change toothbrushes about every three months. Replace toothbrushes sooner if their bristles become frayed.
Avoid sharing utensils and cups to keep from spreading cavity-causing germs.
Do not put your young child to bed with a bottle of milk, formula or juice. Between meals, serve older children water.
Sucking on candy can extend kids' exposure to sugar. Limit sweets and the time it takes for kids to consume them, and make sure children brush afterward.