Most parents should already be aware of the main oral health strategies that help promote and maintain good oral health in children.
They include the following:
- establishing good oral care and hygiene habits at an early age, such as brushing their teeth with fluoride toothpaste
- setting up a trusted dental home for your child by 12 months of age, where they can feel safe, familiar and comfortable with their dentist, treatment and dental environment.
- ensuring your child follows a dentist-approved diet that does not contribute to tooth decay.
- regular dental check-ups and cleans every six months.
But there is one other recommendation that most parents and caregivers (about 90%) aren’t aware of – preventing the transmission of cariogenic (cavity-causing) bacteria.
In other words, if you have active tooth decay, you can pass the nasty oral bacteria associated with it, directly onto your child. And it’s important to keep in mind – baby teeth are very susceptible to decay while erupting because tooth enamel is still very soft at this stage.
Numerous clinical studies over the last 30 years have documented the link between the oral health conditions experienced by the primary caregivers and the risk factor for early childhood caries (ECC) in young children.
One study by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) in 2011 showed that high maternal levels of the mutans streptococci bacteria (MS) correlated with the early colonisation of their child’s oral cavity by the bacteria. The results of the study also showed that the same strains of MS were present in both mother and child.
The transfer of bacteria from mothers (and fathers) to their young child occurs mainly through salivary contact. There are a number of ways for this to happen while giving care and socially interacting with the child:
- kissing an infant’s lips, or “nibbling” on their fingers and toes
- unhygienic physical contact
- sharing eating and drinking utensils, including cups and spoons
- pre-chewing food for infants
- blowing on a baby’s food to cool it down – just wait a bit!
- sharing the consumption of the same food item
- sharing toothbrushes
- toothbrush to toothbrush contact – when in storage
- cleaning pacifiers orally
It’s not just the parents who can introduce potentially cariogenic bacteria into their young child’s mouth – family members, daycare staff and other children may all play a part in transmission.
Although salivary contact between a parent and their child is pretty much unavoidable, there are ways to lessen its impact.
To help prevent or delay the initial transmission, colonisation and proliferation of cariogenic bacteria in infants, toddlers and young children – the AAPD researchers recommended the following steps:
- Ensure that caregivers and others in close physical contact with the child have good oral health and low levels of oral bacteria. Caregivers should make sure that they are free of active tooth decay, cavities and gum disease.
- Prevent or limit activities and interactions where there is a high risk of salivary sharing, transfer or contact – especially with a caregiver who has poor oral health or high levels of infectious oral bacteria.
- Chewing citrus-free xylitol chewing gum 2 or 3 times per day (by the caregiver) significantly reduces the oral bacterial transmission rate.
- Parents can improve their own dietary and oral care habits to help reduce the risk of bacterial transmission.
And for all those parents (and grandparents) who are habitual baby kissers, try kissing your baby’s belly button – just until you get the all clear from your dentist.