Pediatric Habits That Affect Oral Health

Learn how common pediatric habits like thumb sucking and nail biting actually harm kids’ oral health.

Let’s start with babies. I’ve heard the term ‘bottle mouth’ used before. Can you explain what this is and what exactly causes it?

Dr. John R. Vitale: Bottle mouth basically is created when moms and dads put bottles in children’s mouths that contain milk or juices and allow those fluids to stay in their mouth when children sleep, for instance. A lot of times in years past, moms would give their babies a baby bottle to put them to sleep and what would happen would be the following. The milk would lay on the child’s teeth for an extended period of time, for the time that the child is sleeping. If this wasn’t brushed away completely, the bacteria that was created or allowed to stay on the teeth caused the teeth to decay. Over an extended period of time, you ended up with what we call bottle mouth or bottle rot or tooth rot. Not a good situation.

When does thumb sucking start to cause problems?

Dr. John R. Vitale: Actually it starts to cause problems at a very early age because as our bones are developing, if we put an object like our thumb in our mouth when we’re young, the thumb acts as a pushing instrument on our palate and causes our palate to raise up a little bit and causes the bones to form in a different manner that they would normally form and you end up with what we call fish mouth or hook mouth where your teeth start to come together on top. They start to protrude because our thumb is in the way. This is generally corrected later on, at ages 10 to 12, with orthodontics but it’s something that can be avoided by staying on top of your child and not allowing them to suck their thumbs.

What are the worst foods and drinks that kids have and what problems do these types of food cause?

Dr. John R. Vitale: I think any of the foods that are very tacky and sticky and stay on children’s teeth are really not good for them. Young children, as opposed to adults, really don’t have the manual dexterity to brush their teeth properly. While it is admirable that a young child brushes his or her teeth or makes an attempt to do it, they really don’t get all the surfaces and do a great job. It’s a beginning and over time obviously, it gets better and mom and dad really have to get in and clean their teeth. Any of these foods that stick to people’s teeth at a young age, not good. As far as drinks are concerned, any drink with a high sugar content is not really good for a child especially in the evening before they go to sleep. I would say, in the evening, if you can give your child a bottle with water, you would be better off than giving them a bottle with juices or a bottle of milk.

Should young kids be wearing mouth guards while playing sports or can they wait until their teenage years?

Dr. John R. Vitale: It really depends on the sport. I think that the overall answer to that question would be, yes, they should be wearing mouth guards because some of the sports, especially the contact sports, can cause damage. I see this often enough in my office when somebody gets hit in the mouth with a softball or a baseball. Little children maybe not as much but at age 6 and 7 going forward, I think absolutely it’s necessary.

Can you explain why it’s so bad to bite your nails?

Dr. John R. Vitale: I think it’s bad to bite your nails for a couple of reasons. Number one, when you’re biting your nails, you’re generally putting the edges of your teeth together, top and bottom, and you’re snapping your teeth. We have what we call developmental mamelons on our teeth. Those are the little knobs at the end of our teeth. When you’re biting your nails, you tend to break those over time and they cause fractures in the enamel of your teeth.

The second reason, obviously, is because we have bacteria under our skin or under our nails. It’s not an area of our body that we can keep spectacularly clean all day because we pick up things constantly and stuff gets under our nails so it doesn’t make for a healthy situation to put our fingers or nails in our mouths.

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