At the beginning of National Smile Month (20 May-20 June), dental experts explain how important it is for children to visit the dentist regularly, and how parents can encourage them to have good oral health for life.

By Lisa Salmon.

A nice smile is a huge asset - but that smile needs looking after from an early age.

If your teeth are a mess, your smile will be too, so the British Dental Health Foundation is running National Smile Month (May 20-June 20) to encourage everyone, particularly parents and children, to think about their oral health.

And the nation's kids definitely need to improve their dental hygiene, as around eight or nine children in every UK primary school class will have already developed tooth decay.

That's approaching a quarter of a million children in each primary school year, and around 3.3 million young people aged 0-14 years.

To reduce those figures the annual National Smile Month campaign, which will see many dentists giving out smiley stickers and Smile-on-a-Sticks to patients, promotes three key messages.

They are: :: Brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Children under seven should be supervised by a parent, and the recommended fluoride level in toothpaste for children up to three years old is 1,000 parts per million (ppm), and over three years it's 1,350-1,500 fluoride ppm, which is the same as in adult toothpastes. However, the taste of adult toothpaste may be too strong for young children.

:: Cut down on sugary foods and drinks.

:: Visit the dentist regularly, as often as they recommend. NHS dental treatment is free for children up to the age of 18.

Karen Coates, dental adviser at the British Dental Health Foundation, explains that most dentists see children from around the age of two, generally every six months.

"It's basically counting the teeth at that stage, and making sure there aren't any obvious problems in the mouth," she says.

"If you build it up from there, children don't tend to have any issues about going to the dentist - it's part of their routine."

She says as well as visiting the dentist regularly, parents need to watch what children eat.

"It's not the amount of sugar that people have, it's the frequency that causes dental decay," she says.

"If children are eating and drinking sugary foods all day every day, then their teeth are under constant attack."

To reduce that attack, it's better to give children snacks that have a neutral PH value, such as cheese, nuts and seeds, breadsticks, toast or crumpets, etc.

And while fruit is great from a nutritional point of view, it contains fruit sugars and is better as part of a meal. A particular fruit 'tooth villain' is dried fruit, as it's very high in sugar and gets stuck in the grooves of the teeth.

Similarly, fruit juice contains a lot of fruit sugar, so it's best only with a meal. Milk or water are much better drinks for the teeth throughout the day.

Another option is for children to drink juice through a straw, as the juice will be in less contact with the teeth.

And while the temptation for parents might be to tell children to brush their teeth immediately after eating or drinking, this is not recommended by dental professionals.

Coates explains that this is because saliva reduces the plaque acids produced when people eat or drink. It takes around an hour to do this.

If you brush soon after eating, when the teeth are slightly demineralised, this can brush away minute particles of enamel, which can lead to a problem with erosion.

"So if children can't wait an hour after they've eaten or drunk before cleaning their teeth, for example after breakfast when they're rushing to school," says Coates, "it's probably better for them to brush their teeth before eating and then maybe cleanse their mouth afterwards with water, or a mouth rinse if they're old enough to use one."

She says children brushing their teeth after breakfast is a common misconception, as is letting youngsters fall asleep with a bottle of milk in their mouth.

But this can pool milk in the mouth and lead to dental decay.

Looking after children's baby teeth is important, warns Coates, as although they're eventually replaced by adult teeth, baby teeth keep the space for when adult teeth are ready to come through, and Coates points out: "They're also important from a speech point of view, eating and socially - not having teeth isn't good.

"Children need to lose their milk teeth at the correct time, not too early."

As well as good oral hygiene improving appearance, it can help general health in later life too, as studies show that people with fewer teeth are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer, while gum disease has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

So the earlier people learn to look after their teeth, the better, as research also shows that people who learn good habits as children are far more likely to carry them into adulthood.

Coates adds: "It's about being aware, limiting the problems that can occur, and knowing if you can try to get children out of bad dental habits, it will make a big difference to their future dental health.

"It's vital to start good habits early, and we want to educate people about that, which is what National Smile Month's all about."

Ask the expert Q: "My-four-year-old son doesn't sleep through the night and comes into our room and wakes us up. We're absolutely shattered, but putting him to bed later and gentle talks with him haven't made any difference. What can we do?"

A: Bespoke nanny Kathryn Mewes, who works with parents to help solve parenting challenges and is author of The 3 Day Nanny (published by Vermilion on June 7, £12.99), says: "The key is to always have the same bedtime routine, so 5.30pm is tea-time, and 6.15pm a relaxing bath time lasting 15-20 minutes, followed by teeth brushing and the final wee of the day.

"Once upstairs, remain upstairs.

"Then at 6.40pm read him two stories in his bedroom, with him sitting in bed, and have a small chat about the day.

"Find a phrase that you'll say every night at bed time, and say it at 7pm. It must be the same words, eg: 'Time to rest your body. I will see you at breakfast time'.

"Then plant a kiss on his head and leave the room.

"From now on, every time your son comes out of his room, you turn his body around and walk him back to his room. Don't talk to him.

"You place him back into his bed and simply say calmly: 'Time to rest your body. See you at breakfast time'.

"However your son reacts, keep calm and remain in control. Take him back to his bed and use your new catchphrase.

"Three consecutive nights of remaining consistent and sticking to the plan and your son will realise that you've taken back the control and laid down a clear boundary - bed time is in your own bed."

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