The biggest mistake parents make with their kids' teeth (plus, 4 pressing dental questions answered)

My five-year old sprang out of the car with a karate kick and huge smile. It was not what I expected considering the seat he'd soon be sitting in.

"I'm just so excited to go to the dentist!" He was squealing. I had to check (twice) to be sure I wasn't dreaming the whole scene up. He was genuinely happy to have his teeth cleaned.

OK, to be honest, he was mostly thrilled to dig through the big prize box and bring home a few more army guys. But the lure of plastic toys was still balanced by his hope that he'd get a new toothbrush and could ask the dentist if his nighttime teeth-grinding has eased up at all.

He's very invested in the brushing and the grinding, and I credit his dentist for assuring him that he's a big enough kid to handle some of the responsibilities of taking care of his teeth. And since he loves his dentist (and also that prize box) so much, that means he's very invested in being an A+ dental student before he even starts Kindergarten.

That also means I can overlook the (sigh) awkwardness of flossing the goldfish cracker remains from between his teeth on occasion and just take credit for my kid treating his check-ups like they're a trip to Disney not the dentist. My work here is done. At least for another six months.

I culled questions my other mama friends have about how to take better care of their kids' teeth (and help them learn to take care of their own) and asked Dr. Grace Yum to give us all a lesson in better dental practices. Here's her advice for all of our itty bitty teeth concerns.

  • What are the biggest mistakes parents make in caring for their kids' teeth? The biggest mistake that many parents make is that they wait too long to take their kids to a pediatric dentist. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that kids see the dentist by no later than the age of one, or when they get their first tooth, whichever is sooner. Doing this helps prevent cavities and can decrease other health risks. Also, many parents don't realize that fewer than 3% of all dentists are true certified pediatric dentists. Pediatric dentists receive years of special training that other dentists don't get. Even dentists who say they treat kids are often not certified pediatric dentists.

  • Help! My kid is a teeth grinder. How big of a problem is this really? Interestingly, 90% of children grind their teeth. There really is no magic answer about why this happens. But not to worry -- the good news is that most children do not complain of pain due to grinding and usually grow out if it. However, if your child complains of pain due to grinding or begins to damage his or her teeth due to grinding, the pediatric dentist will definitely spot this and be able to help by recommending a custom solution other than a night guard. Pedodontists do recommend night guards for kids because their teeth are always changing and also because it can dislodge in the middle of the night and compromise the airway.

  • Do I need to floss my child's teeth? Really? Flossing a 3 year old may sound silly, but actually, you really need to do it if you want to help your kids stay healthy! Even very young children who have small or no spaces between their teeth can easily develop cavities. Plaque builds up and food that is stuck between teeth can cause decay and gingivitis. So, the answer is yes, you should see a pediatric dentists and start flossing your children's teeth, typically starting around the age of 3!

  • At what age should I start worrying about braces? You may be seeing more and more young children in braces these days and wonder why that is. The reason: more and more specialists are recommending early, preventative, temporary braces for younger kids. It is essentially an intermediate step to try to correct problems as early as possible. That kind of treatment is a case by case basis, and not necessary for all children. Your pediatric dentist or orthodontist can help evaluate your child's needs.

  • Is it OK for my child to use adult toothpaste? I recommend adult toothpaste for kids who can actually spit in the sink, usually starting at around age 4. But if your child is still swallowing most of the paste, then it is safer to stick with training toothpaste. Training toothpaste is missing the fluoride mineral that strengthens enamel, but if swallowed in large amounts can cause problems. if swallowed in bulk, it can be toxic. Most young children can still get their dosage of fluoride through drinking water, if your drinking water is fluorinated.

  • I'm afraid of the dentist. How can I be sure I don't pass that fear on to my child? The best way to keep dental visits positive is to reassure your child that going to the dentist is fun. As you may have found, kids usually take a cue from their parents. Unfortunately, some parents unwittingly transfer their fears, whatever they may be, onto their kids. So if you are scared of the dentist, don't tell your child that! Bottom line -- we have found that the most successful visits for kids occur when parents tell them how easy the appointment is and that getting their teeth brushed can be fun!

Meet our expert:
Grace Yum, DDS, has become one of the most high-profile pediatric dentists in Chicago. She has appeared on NBC Chicago, at, Whole Foods Markets, and at lots of leading Chicago schools and mommy groups to share her expertise on good nutrition and healthy smiles. Dr. Yum is currently on staff to perform surgeries at Children's Memorial Hospital, where she received her pediatric training. During her education, Dr. Yum earned her Bachelor of Arts from Northwestern University. She was then awarded her doctorate from the University of Maryland, home of the first dental school in the world.