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Tooth care begins with your baby's very first tooth. With this new development also comes a myriad of questions for the green parent: Fluoride or no fluoride? Is xylitol natural? What toothpastes are safe to swallow? How do I get my child to cooperate at brushing time?
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Establish a Cleaning Routine
Clean your baby's teeth at least twice a day or after eating with a clean toothbrush. In a pinch, you can wipe your baby's teeth with a washcloth or dental wipes to help remove bacteria that cause tooth decay. If your baby protests to tooth cleaning try offering a second toothbrush or a favorite toy for them to hold, or sing your child's favorite song during brushing.
Toothpaste is optional for babies, but is worth using once your child has several teeth. Choose a natural fluoride-free toothpaste or tooth gel and use a tiny amount. Since babies and young children cannot spit effectively for at least a few years, be sure the toothpaste you use is safe to swallow. Read the ingredient label carefully before choosing a toothpaste for your baby, even if the label states the product is safe for children. If you are unsure about the safety of any of the ingredients on the label, research the ingredients online using the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database. Read up on how to use the database here.
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The Fluoride Debate
We all know how important tooth care is for maintaining a healthy mouth and smile. Although fluoride has been shown to help strengthen developing teeth and prevent cavities, much debate exists on the safety of ingesting fluoride. Fluoride may be added to your municipal drinking water, be naturally occurring in well water, or be prescribed by your child's pediatrician to be taken orally for healthy teeth.
The debate over the safety of ingesting fluoride still rages. Fluoride has been undoubtedly been shown to strengthen teeth and prevent cavities when applied topically (as in toothpaste with fluoride). Fluoride is also a building block your body uses when forming new teeth. Therefore, it is often recommended that children between about 1 and 6 years old ingest fluoride supplements as their bodies create their adult teeth. However, for people over 6 years old, ingesting fluoride has no benefit to the teeth and may even contribute to neurological problems or cancer.
The choice to give your baby or child fluoride supplements is a personal one. Much information exists touting the safety of fluoride, but read up about the dangers of fluoride ingestion at www.fluoridealert.org before you make your choice.
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What About Xylitol?
Used as a sweetener for decades, xylitol is a natural substance that is found in many foods and other plants. In the 1970's scientists discovered that this sweet-tasting substance can help prevent tooth decay. Bacteria that cause tooth decay cannot process xylitol the way they process sugars such as sucrose or fructose. In fact, chewing a xylitol-containing gum or using a xylitol mouthwash after eating can stop the bacteria in your mouth from multiplying. Xylitol was approved for use by the FDA in 1963.
Tooth gels and toothpastes containing xylitol are becoming widely available, including several especially for babies and young children. Look for xylitol toothpastes and tooth gels, such as Spry Infant Tooth Gel. Spiffies dental wipes, which contain xylitol, can be used to gently clean your baby's teeth after eating.
Learn more about xylitol at xylitol.org or EWG's Skin Deep Database.