How to Prevent and Break Kids' Bad Dental Habits
The bad dental habits that your children practice early on set the stage for their lifelong oral health. Some of these habits can start even before your child gets her first tooth. The longer you let these negative behaviors continue, the harder it can be to help your child overcome them later. You will also end up spending much more money on family dental care to correct the resulting oral health problems. Here are some of the most common bad dental habits children face and how you can gently correct or proactively prevent them.
Baby Bottle in Bed
As a parent, you know how tough it can be to get a baby to go to sleep at night without their favorite comfort items. Unfortunately, putting a baby to bed with a bottle that’s filled with what may seem like a harmless or healthy beverage like milk, juice or formula can lead to baby bottle tooth decay. If your baby likes to nurse on a bottle to self-soothe at bedtime, fill the bottle with filtered water. That’s safe to drink throughout the night and won’t promote the growth of oral bacteria.
If your child is already used to having other beverages in a nighttime bottle, try diluting the liquid with water over a period of a couple of weeks until they get used to just having water. Weaning your toddler off sugary beverages is something you should continue into their childhood. The less time they spend sipping on juices or other high-sugar drinks from a sippy cup, the better.
Both extended thumb sucking and pacifier use can create problems with the normal development and growth of a child’s jaws. Prolonged thumb sucking (once permanent teeth start to come in at age 4-6) can create problems for the front teeth in particular. Bite misalignment and tooth crowding resulting from continued pacifier and thumb sucking may need to be corrected later with lengthy and uncomfortable treatment involving head gear, palatal expanders and braces. Children with sucking habits may also experience problems learning to speak clearly.
That’s a lot of grief for your child to go through. It’s better to avoid these orthodontic issues by helping your child let go of sucking habits early. Try to wean your child from a pacifier by age 1 and from thumb sucking before age 4. Some parents use punishment to help break a thumb sucking habit. However, there are many gentler ways to help motivate a child to stop sucking on thumbs or fingers. You can try these in any combination to find out what works based on your child’s age and individual personality:
- Positive verbal reinforcement
- Substituting other self-soothing activities
- Providing distractions from the unwanted habit
- Rewards to encourage the desired behavior
- Helping the child feel less anxiety
- Explaining about germs that can get in the child’s mouth from sucking a dirty thumb
- Painting the thumb with unpleasant tasting substances or having the child wear a bandaid on the thumb (as a reminder not to suck the thumb rather than as a punishment)
In extreme cases of thumb sucking or when a child is unable to break an equally damaging habit like tongue thrusting, an orthodontist may offer to insert some form of mouth guard appliance or cage. This serves as a deterrent to stop bad dental habits. However, this kind of oral device is very uncomfortable and is usually only recommended as a last resort.
Why do children eat toothpaste? Sometimes it’s because they think the paste tastes good. Partly it’s because they haven’t quite grasped why it’s OK to put something in their mouth but not to swallow it. Toothpastes that contain fluoride can cause permanent discoloration of a child’s teeth if they consume too much of it. So, it’s best to start your child off with toothpaste that’s not high in fluoride. Most municipal water supplies in the United States now contain fluoride to help protect children’s teeth. Your dentist may also recommend a separate fluoride supplement if your child is at high risk for tooth decay. As your child learns to rinse and spit during brushing time, you can switch to fluoridated toothpaste. Since children learn fastest by example, the easiest way to break bad dental habits like eating toothpaste is to make tooth brushing a family event.
Not Wanting to Brush Teeth
Brushing your teeth with your child is also good way to overcome the other common bad dental habit some kids have: resistance to tooth brushing. Many parents find it helpful to tell a story or play a game during brushing sessions. The oral bacteria can be goblins hiding in the forest and the toothbrush and floss can be the brave knights who chase them away. Some kids enjoy using mouthwash that turns plaque blue so they can see how well they are brushing their teeth. Let your child help you brush your teeth just as you help them brush theirs so they can see that it’s important to you. The more fun you can make tooth brushing time, the better!
Nighttime Tooth Grinding
Nightly tooth grinding wears down enamel, makes teeth prone to breakage and causes chronic jaw pain. This is a difficult dental habit to break since your child is probably unaware that they are even doing it. Sometimes, bruxism (tooth grinding and jaw clenching) is a reaction to stress. You may need to take steps to ensure your child is not experiencing undue anxiety or fears about school, social situations, family tension or other issues. Your child may also need to be fitted with a plastic mouth guard or splint to wear at night to keep their teeth from grinding together.
Chewing on Hard Objects
Older kids who are past the stage of sucking their thumb may find other ways to self soothe or distract themselves by putting things in their mouth. Nail biting, pencil chewing and ice crunching are all bad dental habits they may form in response to anxiety – or just because they see other kids doing it. Constantly biting or chewing on hard objects stresses teeth and wears down enamel. This can make teeth more prone to cavities and fracture. Fortunately, school age children can understand the dangers of permanent tooth damage from these behaviors. You and your child should be able to work out a strategy together to deal with this challenge. The more input they have in coming up with creative ways to solve the problem, the more likely they are to follow through and break the habit on their own.