Poor Oral Care in Children – A Hidden Epidemic

Bleeding gums and rotten teeth affects almost three-quarters of preschool children in Malaysia, and this can have severe consequences on a child’s well-being and development. Here are 5 suggestions for parents to turn this around.

Dr Yogeswari Sivapragasam, Senior Lecturer and Consultant in Paediatric Dentistry, School of Dentistry at International Medical University

Many people think of good oral health as having white teeth and a nice smile but there is so much more to it than that. Practising good oral health care from infancy into adulthood as part of overall health is simple and easy. Unfortunately, many fail to see that poor oral health has far-reaching consequences.

What’s more, childhood cavities are not harmless – studies show that children who have cavities at a young age are three times more likely to have them as adults. The Malaysian National Oral Health Survey of Preschool Children (NOHPS) reports that 71.3% of 5-year-olds already have cavities! 

What can parents do to prevent this from happening? Dr Yogeswari Sivapragasam, Senior Lecturer and Consultant in Paediatric Dentistry, the School of Dentistry at International Medical University (IMU), offers some valuable advice.

  1. Start them young (from birth!)

It is easy to overlook oral care in babies – after all, they won’t have teeth till months later! However, babies should still have their gums cleaned at least twice a day. This helps to set the foundation for a lifetime of daily oral cleaning routines. 

Besides that, parents should also get advice from healthcare practitioners, such as a nurse advisor at community clinics or paediatricians, on how to care for their child’s oral health from birth, which includes what to do when their teeth first appear. 

2. Say ‘no’ to salt and added sugar (until later)

As children – and their teeth – grow, exposure to new foods is natural, as their diet expands in accordance with their changing nutritional needs. However, it is important to introduce new foods gradually and mindfully.

Dr Yogeswari advises parents to delay the introduction of added salt and sugar into their child’s diet, so that they do not develop a liking for these flavours early in life. A lifelong preference for sweet foods can lead to higher risk of dental problems as well as chronic health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, she explained.

3. Make dental visits fun and regular

It is quite common for adults to have an aversion to visiting the dentist, and this may have developed from their own negative experiences. However, it is important that parents put aside their personal fears and help to create a positive experience for their child.

Children should receive their first dental check-up when they are one year old (remember this: “first birthday, first dental check-up”). Thereafter, a check-up is advisable every 6 months. As it is unlikely that they will have any dental problems at this young age, this will help young children have a positive experience rather than associate dental visits with pain and fear. Regular visits will help to normalise the experience of visiting a dentist and will go a long way towards preventive care. The idea behind early dental visits is that potential problems are detected early and prevented from progressing further, explains Dr Yogeswari. 

4. Be alert to behavioural changes 

It can happen that children sometimes refuse certain foods or refuse to brush their teeth. While this may be easily explained as the child being fussy or picky, there could be another reason behind it. 

A child with cavities or gum disease may experience chronic discomfort or pain, causing them to avoid foods that require chewing. This may inadvertently lead them to avoid whole foods such as apples and chicken, and choose softer foods instead, many of which are processed and contain higher levels of salt, sugar and fat. Over time, this may lead to nutritional deficiencies or chronic conditions that can affect a child’s health into adulthood.