Oh woe, woe is me
Oh pearly whites
Why do you bother me?
Teeth are on my mind. Everyday, 24/7, they sit in the back of my mind and ponder over everything I have done, am doing, or plan to do in the future. If you think, I’m worried about my teeth then you are mistaken. Nope. I worry about my little munchkin’s chompers. I have visited two dentists and definitely like the second dentist as she is closer and more personable. She also isn’t the type to say hold and restrain your child no matter what.
My daughter has cavities and it infuriates me when trying to figure out why she has them compared to other children. I never gave her sugar before one years old. I brush her teeth, but maybe not as well as I should have. Are there things I could have improved like: not sharing utensils, or chewing some of her food before giving it to her? Of course. But am I to blame for doing those things? I doubt it.
It’s interesting being in an intercultural relationship as you see two sides to how people go about issues and their attitudes or habits towards childcare. In the west, we preach ‘don’t share toothbrushes, don’t share food, don’t share utensils.’ But in many parts of the world, shared food dishes are common, many adults cool the food by blowing on it or resting it in their mouth before giving it to their child, and toothbrushing might not be a common practice among children. And it is this difference that at times intrigues and infuriates me.
Both dentists assume it is breastfeeding at night that is causing the cavities. The first dentist suggested weaning immediately, the second said I should wipe the teeth and give water after each feed, although weaning would be good. I don’t know about you, but I do think there is a correlation between weaning whether it is breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, and lovies, pacifiers, or blankets that kids drag around everywhere. Breastfeeding is what nature intended for us, although bottle-feeding is just as good and necessary to help children thrive who aren’t able to otherwise. Weaning at a young age to protect teeth isn’t exactly a norm that is universal. Children were meant to sleep next to their parents and they would frequently nurse not just for hunger, but comfort.
See that word ‘comfort‘, that is what we need to pay attention to when talking about children and why some are attached more to the boob at night, or others can’t fall asleep without a pacifier, lovey, or favorite blanket. Whatever association they had that meant comfort was taken, but the need was still there, hence the replacement. And we all know kids who are notorious with their replacements and all hell will break loose if they are lost. Want to know something? I haven’t noticed that among any of the kids in my husband’s family. Is it because they let them nurse until the child is ready to wean? Or if the mother’s milk is not enough, they still give a bottle as long as the child needs it.
At this age, my daughter mostly breastfeeds at night for comfort, the sessions are shorter, but it is for relief and comfort and she falls back asleep. My sleep is more disturbed than hers, but this is what comforts her. When I’m not around, my mother-in-law does what some grandma’s in many parts of Amdo do, and lets a child dry-nurse. At first, I had issues with this when it first happened, but introspection has led me to realize that first experience although jarring for me with a newborn, was more of my mother-in-law’s way of making sure my daughter could get the latch easily. At the time, I felt differently, but now I can see it for what it is, and sometimes it is important to breathe before judging differences. This leads me to my conclusion that boobs were created to nourish and soothe children: nature’s pacifier.
When we take the comfort away what will happen? Will the child become anxious? Do they have separation anxiety? I am sure there is a parallel, but I do not know what it is. I, myself, am an anxious person, and I don’t wish that on my daughter. So, while I know night weaning would save her teeth slightly if anything it will only slow the process of her teeth decaying more. Regardless, they will decay, and she will need to have dental work. That there is the truth. But, do I need to take away her comfort to save her teeth? I have struggled with this and I realize how important teeth are, but so is emotional health and well-being. I can repair teeth. I can get them filled and polished, and fluoridated, and then they will fall out and new ones will come in. But her emotions? What will happen if I force her to wean before she is ready? People assume children will cry and be fine, or they are resilient, but do we really know to what extent that affects our mental health? Is it our parenting in these early stages that helps define and shape mental health, dental health, and well-being?
I, myself, don’t have perfect teeth. I have had my fair share of fillings and a root canal due to my infinite love of sugar and all sweet things. I have influenced my husband to go to a dentist, he hadn’t been in almost 8 years when I met him. Dental health can be taught, but to a degree, everyone will say it, they are only baby teeth, it is okay. I struggled with this as back home we say no matter what parents need to take care of their kid’s dental health, and if you don’t you are a bad parent. Someone might not say that to you, but just browse the comment section on any topic like this and you will see that many say, ‘try to make it fun,’ while others says, ‘get it done at all costs’ even if that means pinning your child down to achieve the perfect brushing session. And yet, in other cultures, the teeth aren’t brushed at all, because if they fall out it is okay.
I believe that dental health is important in children, but I also believe that children’s well-being is important as well. I don’t think there is a need to force a child to do something they aren’t ready to do, just because it is what I should do to slow the decay. I live in China and I can tell you that many children have bad teeth and bad toothbrushing habits. Many adults have bad teeth, too. My daughter won’t have bad teeth in the future, but there are answers to our teeth troubles that no one is willing to sit with me to discuss. Yes, she has cavities. But why does she have them? I have done more than many parents I know and yet my daughter’s teeth are in worse shape. My instinct tells me that she was born with weaker tooth enamel in a few of her teeth, especially the two upper lateral incisors which came in smaller and I wonder if they actually had tiny holes in the top that I never noticed. I suspect enamel hypoplasia, but the dentists all say cavities. Yes, they are cavities now. But is it due to how her teeth were to begin with? Is it because she is a preemie? How many preemies are born with teeth issues? How many preemies are born with smaller than normal teeth?
As for habits of utensil-sharing and food-sharing, I didn’t plan for it to go that way, and I normally don’t chew her food and give it to her, or share her utensils, but that doesn’t mean dad doesn’t, or grandma doesn’t. My husband is from a food-sharing culture, where it is common to chew food into smaller pieces and give it to kids when they are very young. And from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense as how many utensils would people have carried to begin with? There are times when I have not prepared the food and it is too big for me to give her without choking, so I do have to chew it into smaller pieces before sharing it with her. My dental health is okay, but not perfect. But I think that could only play a small role in this as most Tibetan kids I know have very good teeth, except for their molars which seem to be the most affected by the recent uptick in sugary beverages and snacks that have entered everyone’s diets.
I also have a hunch that children who get their teeth earlier are more prone to tooth decay than those who do not. For example, my daughter had eight teeth by the time she was ten months old (nine months adjusted). Whereas I have friends who have children with no teeth or only two teeth when they are one years old. This makes a difference as well for how long teeth are exposed to food and drinks, but it doesn’t completely answer the question as to why they are worse even if we try brushing. I think if you got your teeth young you should also concentrate on preparing to brush your children’s teeth and gums earlier. I thought I was doing a great job introducing the small finger brush when she was about 7 months old, but I think I should have introduced a toothbrush from the time she started eating solids at 4.5 months old. Earlier exposure is better, and she used to enjoy the toothbrush and like chewing on it.
I struggle at the moment to maintain her dental health, but every night even if I am exhausted I make sure to clean her teeth the best I can while she is in a deep sleep and then apply a fluoridated toothpaste. Fluoride is not in the water in China and some toothpastes also do not contain fluoride. It is recommended to only put a small amount on as large amounts of fluoride can be bad for small children, especially since they can’t spit it out yet. Right now, our goal is to try and move to a positive relationship with brushing teeth. I can’t grab her from behind as it scares her, as I only pinned her down for a month and it has already traumatized her and I wish I didn’t do it. I haven’t gotten in her face yet, instead during the day I give her a toothbrush with a rice sized amount of toothpaste on it to munch on and let her be in control and in the evening no matter what I brush as best I can. Eventually, we will have to start brushing more, but I need to make it fun and I need her to feel ready to participate.
Both dentists said they can’t do anything for her until she can sit through a treatment and let someone in her mouth. This varies in age from two to three years old. One dentist said if it continues to be a negative association she won’t cooperate at the dentist. So we are trying to be more neutral. I hope that eventually she will be good with it again like she was when she was little. I also know as her understanding and speaking skills increase it will become easier to communicate what we are doing and why. So here I am telling the world that teeth are important, but so is emotional well-being.