It’s not unusual to see children from as young as 18 months old with cavities. Troubling, yes. Uncommon, hardly. Cavities continue to be a huge problem among kids. In fact, tooth decay is more common than asthma or hay fever. When left untreated, dental problems like tooth decay can lead to difficulty speaking and chewing and ultimately, time away from the classroom. Chronic tooth decay can lead to more serious health issues as children grow to adolescence and through to adulthood.

The main culprits of cavities are sugary and processed snack foods. And a lack of proper oral hygiene, like not brushing and flossing at least twice a day. Still, toothbrushes and toothpaste alone aren’t enough.

For the month of June, National Dairy Month and National Smile Month, the Dental Health Foundation and GOT MILK? have partnered to remind families about the importance of eating calcium rich foods such as milk, as researchers at the UCLA School of Dentistry have found out in a report entitled “Milk and Oral Health: White Paper.”

The statistics are alarming. According to a 2006 report by the Dental Health Foundation, by the time children in California reach kindergarten, more than 50 percent already have had tooth decay. When they reach third grade that number increases to 70 percent. In effect, 2, the age when most parents consider the appropriate time to take their child to a dentist, is too late.

However, there are other steps parents can take to ensure that their children grow up with healthy teeth and picture-perfect smiles:

• Start early: As soon as the first tooth erupts, keep it clean by wiping it daily with a damp cloth. Children need to see a dentist by their first birthday and have a dental check-up every six months. Remember even baby teeth are important. Wean babies by the age of 1, and don’t let children fall asleep while nursing at the breast, with a bottle, or with a “sippy” cup. Alternate milk with fluoridated tap water as the healthy drinks of choice.

• Brush often: Children should brush their teeth at least twice a day for two-and-a-half to three minutes with toothpaste that has fluoride — an ingredient that helps fight cavities. Parents should supervise their children teeth brushing until they are at least 6 years old.

• Look in your child’s mouth: Get to know your child’s mouth. If you notice white or brown spots on their teeth or anything unusual like swollen or bleeding gums, phone your child’s dentist or ask their doctor.

• Got milk? This wonder tonic is a good replacement for soda and sugary drinks at mealtimes. A number of studies show that milk helps produce strong, healthy teeth because it has the right ingredients for promoting oral health. Besides calcium, milk also contains multiple proteins important for oral health. Casein is able to prevent the adhesion of cavity-causing bacteria to the tooth surface and whey proteins, lactoferrin, lysozyme and antibodies also found in milk can promote oral health via their strong antibacterial activities.

• Limit your sweet tooth: Consumption of soft drinks, snack foods, sugars and other carbohydrates and the prolonged contact of these foods with teeth can lead to cavities. Stay away from hard candy and foods that could cause teeth to break and have your child eat fresh fruit, cheese or yogurt as a snack.

To reward children for maintaining proper hygiene and good nutrition, GOT MILK? is sponsoring a photo contest for California children ages 6-12. With their parents’ permission, they can submit a photo of their best smiles and could win a $500 shopping spree and GOT MILK? goodies. For more information on the contest and how to enter, visit www.gotmilk.com

Dr. Francisco Ramos-Gomez is a member of the board of the Dental Health Foundation. He is a leading researcher in perinatal, infant, and pediatric oral health. Ramos is currently a full professor in the section of pediatric dentistry at UCLA, and graduate program director for UCLA’s Pediatric Community Health Advance Training (CHAT) program in Venice, Calif.

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