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Closeup on young woman brushing teeth

To prevent cavities and maintain good oral health, your diet — what you eat and how often you eat — are important factors. Changes in your mouth start the minute you eat certain foods. Bacteria in the mouth convert sugars and carbohydrates from the foods you eat to acids. It is the acids that begin to attack the enamel on teeth, starting the decay process. The more often you eat and snack, the more frequently you are exposing your teeth to the cycle of decay.

The best food choices for the health of your mouth include cheeses, chicken or other meats, nuts and milk. These foods are thought to protect tooth enamel by providing the calcium and phosphorus needed to remineralize teeth. For those people who are lactose-intolerant and cannot ingest milk products, green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach are high in calcium.

Additional food choices include firm, crunchy fruits and vegetables. These foods have a high water content, which dilutes the effects of the sugars they contain, and stimulate the flow of saliva. Acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and lemons, should be eaten as part of a larger meal to minimize the acid from them.

The best beverage choices include water, milk and unsweetened tea. Limit your consumption of sugar-containing drinks, including soft drinks, lemonade and coffee or tea with added sugar. Also, avoid day-long sipping of sugar containing drinks. Day-long sipping exposes your teeth to constant sugar and, in turn, constant decay-causing acids.

The Cayuga County Health Department’s Women, Infants and Children program recognizes that a healthy lifestyle includes caring for your teeth every day. "Swap the Sugar and Crush the Cavities" is the program's current healthy lifestyle focus, as a dynamic relationship exists between sugars and oral health. Participants attending local WIC clinics in Auburn, Cato and Moravia will receive toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss and coloring books to encourage practicing healthy dental habits.

It is important to care for your child’s teeth and practice good oral health from birth. Start with cleaning your infant’s gums after feeding. Gently massage the gums with a moistened washcloth. Infant normally begin teething between 4 and 6 months of age. His/her gums may be red and swollen, and saliva flow may increase. To ease these symptoms, give your infant a clean teething ring or cold wet washcloth. Cold temperatures are soothing, so you may want to chill a teething ring. Avoid sharing utensils, refeeding from the same bottle and cleaning a pacifier or a bottle nipple by putting it in your mouth. These practices can help stop the transmission of bacteria that cause tooth decay.

Between the ages of 6 to 8 months, your baby will get his/her first tooth. It is important to care for their teeth right from the start. Practicing healthy habits can prevent or reduce tooth decay in infants and children. Continue to clean your infant’s gums after feeding. Once a tooth comes in, start to use a child’s soft bristles toothbrush, with no toothpaste, in addition to massaging the gums.

Begin to wean your baby from the bottle as your infant begins to eat more solid foods and drinks from a cup. Gradually, begin to offer a sippy cup of water. By age 12 to 14 months, most children can drink from a cup. Promote healthy habits now by limiting the frequency and amount of sweetened beverages and foods you give your child. Do not allow your baby to walk around with their bottle.

Be familiar with the normal appearance of your child’s gums and teeth. Regularly, lift your child’s lips to check for suspicious small white or brown spots on their teeth. If you see these white or brown spots, schedule an appointment with your dentist right away. Since our public drinking water does not have fluoride added, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about starting fluoride supplements.

At age 2, begin brushing with a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste. Teach your child to spit out the toothpaste. Observe to insure that your child does not swallow the toothpaste. Begin to teach your child how to brush their teeth. Their hand coordination is developing, so you may want to check that they reached all the surfaces of their teeth. Children should be able to brush unsupervised by the age of 6 or 7.

Parents can continue to care about the health of their children’s teeth by limiting sugary foods and drinks. Replace toothbrushes as they wear out. Eat a balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Drink, rather than sip sweetened and acidic beverages. Avoid putting infant or child to bed with a bottle of milk, juice or other sugar-containing beverages.

Ann Robson, MSACN, is a supervising nutritionist and outreach coordinator with the Cayuga County Women, Infants and Children program.