An Inconvenient Tooth

My kid is hooked on the binky. I hate it (but that’s a blog for a whole other day) because it has caused her front teeth to stick out. It makes them hard to see and hard to brush. I’m not sure what possessed me to do it, but one day in April I realized that I hadn’t actually seen her front teeth in a long time. I laid her on my lap and pulled her top lip back and –


Holes. Big, brown, holes. IN MY BABY’S TEETH. The horror.

What kind of a mother was I? I didn’t know anyone else whose toddler had cavities. I sent a frantic e-mail to my husband, asking him if he knew about the gaping canyons in our child’s teeth. Then I turned to my old friend, Google. (Well, I went in the bathroom and cried a little. And then I went to Google.)

To my surprise, there was more than a little information online about cavities in toddlers. There were hundreds of news articles, message boards, op-eds, and blogs. There is a toddler tooth crisis that I never even knew about, until my child became a statistic. The teeth of poor little souls all over the first world are literally crumbling out of their mouths.

In Canadian children under five, tooth decay is up nearly 30% from ten years ago. Kids as young as 2 are going to the operating room to have extensive dental work, including extractions, root canals, abscesses, fillings, and caps. There is surgery with anesthesia. If my child were in an accident or became ill and needed life-saving surgery, I wouldn’t hesitate to give my consent. But for cavities?

Left untreated, childhood tooth decay has plenty of long term effects on adult teeth as well. Children with active infection in their baby teeth are more likely to have cavities in their adult teeth. Premature loss of baby teeth can result in crowding as the adult teeth grow in, which can lead to many more (expensive) interventions down the road.

Everything we eat contains more sugar than it used to – canned vegetables, prepared side dishes, pasta sauce, soda, cooking sauces, snack foods, juice and other drinks, yogurt, breakfast cereal. Even for those who avoid prepared and processed foods entirely, there is the natural-occuring sugar in fruits and vegetables. Dried fruit, sticky and sweet, is like tooth kryptonite. And of course there are the bottles at bedtime. I’m not judging anyone, since I was guilty of this until a few months ago myself.

I also don’t want to minimize the socioeconomic factors at play. Children from low income families, certain minority groups, and with reduced access to dental care are at much greater risk. First Nations children are in the throes of a catastrophic dental crisis, the details of which would make you weep. There are also some children who, even with the best of care, are physically predisposed to dental decay and other issues.

But I am ashamed that we are in this place, because we are not a low income family. There are times when money is a little tight, but we have never had to choose between diapers and food, or worse. My husband and I have excellent dental benefits through our workplaces.

Before Nina’s dental crisis, I had never really discussed toddler dental care before. I’ve learned that if you bring up the subject with a group of mothers, at least one of them will know someone who has already been through it. My mum, a long-time pediatric nurse, scoffed when I called to tell to her about it. She said that she rarely brushed our teeth as toddlers and we were just fine and that I was probably overreacting (which is kind of my specialty). She told me that she knew people whose baby teeth had rotted to black stubs, but grew beautiful, pearly white adult teeth in their place.

She was trying to be helpful, but I wasn’t comforted. Health concerns aside, I don’t want my child to have to walk around with black stubs. I don’t want her to be made fun of because she has rotten teeth. Social status on the playground is tenuous at best.

Thankfully, Google also helped me find a great pediatric dentist in our area. At Nina’s first appointment there was a lot of sniffling and apologizing (me) and screaming (the kid), but there was also a great deal of compassion and understanding. And most importantly, a lot of education. Teeth MUST be brushed every day, whether it is a fight or not. And flossing needs to be added to the routine. Juice, which doesn’t have a lot of nutritional benefits anyway, should be avoided whenever possible. Nina does have some decay, and we are going back every three months for the next year in order to stop the progression of infection. Nina’s second appointment was much better. Diligent brushing and flossing have prevented the spread of decay, and continue to buy us more time before she might need any major interventions like surgery. She got a new toothbrush (dinosaur) and a prize (a snap bracelet) and I got a little peace of mind. 

I don’t know what the future holds for Nina’s baby teeth. We may end up in the operating room. I’m not sharing our experiences because I want to make anyone feel guilty. I know that people are busy and time is in short supply. We are all doing our best for our kids. Brushing a small child’s teeth sucks. Who wants to battle a 25 pound rabid wolverine/Uma-Thurman-in-Kill-Bill after a long day of work? No one. I felt like this was one battle that wasn’t worth picking, that I would catch up when she was a little older, but I was dead wrong on this one.


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