As hard as it may be to believe, a child's visit to the dentist can be an easy and enjoyable experience! The major reason for this turnabout is that tooth decay, formerly the most common of human diseases, is fast becoming a thing of the past.

The cavity rate for youngsters ages 5-17 has decreased by more than half compared to 35 years ago. Many of today's children are cavity-free, which is a huge success story in modern preventive healthcare.

Why the Dramatic Improvement?

Fluoride and preventive dentistry have been the biggest contributors to improved oral health in children. Fluoride is available in toothpastes, mouth rinses, gels applied in the dental office, and tablets prescribed by dentists. In many communities, fluoride is also found in drinking water.

However, excess fluoride can stain the teeth; so adults should pay close attention as small children brush. Children should be taught to use only a little fluoridated toothpaste, about the size of a pencil eraser. Stress the importance of spitting out toothpaste and mouthwash and not swallowing them after use.

Where Are Cavities Found?

Cavities between teeth are quickly becoming a thing of the past, according to the National Institute for Dental Research. Most decay is now found in baby teeth and on the chewing surfaces of permanent back teeth (molars).

Common sources for cavities are natural defects on the chewing surface in molars known as pits and fissures. These defects can extend far into the enamel. They cannot be cleaned by brushing or flossing. Bacteria, the cause of cavities, easily multiply in pits and fissures and produce decay.

The easiest way to manage and maintain these enamel defects is the placement of sealants by a dentist. A painless procedure, sealants are applied to teeth in a process known as "bonding." The sealant covers the defect and prevents bacteria from entering. This protects teeth from decay.

Because of their softer enamel, baby teeth are more prone to cavities than adult teeth. In addition, small children may neglect or do a poor job with brushing. The result is that kids aged 5-9 years old have more cavities in baby teeth than adult teeth.

Does Where You Live Matter?

While all areas of the US show improvement in oral health, there are still important regional differences in cavity rates. The cause for these differences is not quite understood, although natural fluoridation of water supplies may be one reason.

Will There Be Fewer Problems?

As today's kids grow to adulthood, no cavities now mean fewer dental problems later. These future adults will need fewer root canal treatments, extractions, crowns (caps), bridges, and dentures than the prior generations.

Is Your Baby Bottle-Fed?

Tooth decay is a bacterial disease. Cavity-causing germs love to feed on sugars and cooked starches. The longer these carbohydrates keep in contact with teeth, the greater the chance that bacteria will thrive and begin to produce decay-causing acids. Constantly bathing the teeth in sugars and cooked starches is especially harmful. This problem is most acutely observed in small children who are bottle-fed fruit juice and/or milk between regular feedings and while in bed at night. What commonly results has been called "baby bottle tooth decay." To avoid this problem, bottle-fed children should be given only plain water as a beverage between meals and at bedtime.

Do You Have the Right Attitude?

As a parent, you should speak to your children in positive terms about seeing the dentist. If you are positive, it is likely your child will be positive, too. This will hopefully lay the groundwork for a lifetime of great dental health experiences.