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The tooth hurts: an interview with a non-scary dentist about looking after your kids’ teeth

Emily Writes sits down with a dentist to drill him about kids and teeth and all the stuff parents need to know about dental health. Open wide, this shouldn’t hurt a bit…

This is the first in a series of posts in which I’ll be asking health professionals questions about child health, crowd-sourced from you. Today’s interviewee is the lovely Sam Smith who was very accommodating and open. He was so free and frank with his answers – you may just change your fillings (sorry) about dentists after reading this. – Emily Writes, Spinoff Parents editor

Introducing Sam Smith! Sam is fully qualified dentist who now works fulltime as a writer on Jono and Ben and 7 Days. He’s also the warm-up guy on Family Feud. He does slightly better than average tweets at @ReelBigSmith.

Sam Smith, dentist extraordinaire

Sam Smith, dentist extraordinaire

Emily: Let’s get right to it Sam, hypothetically…is it OK if your toddler just walks around the house chewing on a tooth brush with tooth paste on it? Is that brushing? Or do I have to actually brush them and have my – I mean the hypothetical – toddler scream at me like I’m murdering him?

Sam: I wish that counted, but I’m sorry it doesn’t. It’s the actual movement of the brush that removes the plaque so I’m afraid you have to get in there and brush away. I have an 18-month-old son and we’ve got him to get used to the feel of brushing by getting him a kids’ electric toothbrush. It’s awesome, it’s got the Ninja Turtles on it. He was scared of the buzzing at first, but when he saw his mum and I brushing our teeth he wanted to copy. So try that!

Is fluoride a secret tool of the government designed to turn us into sheeple?

Fluoride is a safe, cheap and effective way of strengthening teeth for people of all walks of life. If it is a way of controlling our minds then it doesn’t work very well because people hate on the government all day every day.

Why do people believe that fluoride is evil?

It was a plotline in the movie Doctor Strangelove that people latched onto! There have been no studies, literally zero, that show any major health issues with toothpaste or water when fluoridated to appropriate levels. I think the people who believe that think they’ve uncovered some sort of secret global conspiracy, much like the other idiots who are against vaccines and other proven science. They are fools who should be sent to Mars to stop scaring other people.

Do I need to use child toothpaste for my kids or can they just have the same toothpaste that’s on special at the supermarket that I use?

There’s a bit of confusion about this, so here it is once and for all: Adults fill the length of your toothbrush. Kids older than six years have a pea-sized amount. Kids under six, just a thin smear. I dab my son’s toothbrush in the toothpaste just once and that’s enough. The reason we give kids less toothpaste is because they are more prone to swallowing it. Swallowing toothpaste is fine, but it can cause little white flecks on the growing teeth. The flecks don’t do anything, it’s just a minor cosmetic thing that can be easily avoided. Rather than explaining that to kids it’s just much easier to say “Don’t eat toothpaste, kids!”

Do they have to have a child brush? And are electric toothbrushes better? And if they are – do you have a way to convince my child that electric tooth brushes aren’t evil?

Children’s brushes are great. They make them to fit their sized hands. Electric toothbrushes have been proven to be more effective, and are super easy ONCE you get past that initial fear of the noise and buzzing. Keep letting them touch it while it’s on so they get used to the sensation.

Do children have to brush after they have their bottle to go to sleep? If you are advising this then shouldn’t you come to my house and put my child to sleep because that’s very unfair.

Ideally, yes. But yeah, it’s pretty impractical. Brush after dinner, then give them the bottle. It’s best to have water in the bottle, not milk, but again kids bloody love milk so go for it. They’re not going to do too much damage with milk. Juice is a 100% no.

Are kids teeth really getting worse because Mothers These Days are terrible? I hear you’re pulling out teeth from kids left, right, and centre these days. Is there really an increase in teeth decay happening in children now?

Mothers These Days are great! Who said that they were terrible?

EVERYONE! *sobs quietly* Also old people.

They’re wrong! Teeth are much better than in the past because of a change in diet, water fluoridation and parents are just more aware. It used to be inevitable that you’d lose your teeth. Back in the day people used to routinely get full dentures for their 21st birthdays – that was terrible! We know so much more about looking after teeth now. Commit to a little oral hygiene every day and you’ll have teeth for life. And to all those people saying they have weak teeth – that’s not a thing! You’re not looking after them well enough. Same goes for sensitive teeth – you’re not brushing well enough!

I like you. I look forward to telling my husband about your controversial sensitive teeth comment. He’s not going to be happy. Someone on the internet told me juice is so bad I may as well give my child crack cocaine. Is this true? Do I really need to stress out about sugar? Crack seems wasted on children.

First of all, please don’t give you kid crack cocaine. Kids don’t have an income so can’t keep up with the costs of it. Sugary drinks are the biggest worry these days. Juice is a lot more sugary than people think though. Even the 100% fruit juices that seem “natural” are super sugary. Try and teach them that juice and fizzy drinks are for special occasions and shouldn’t be part of their everyday life. With good oral hygiene a wee treat every so often is going to be just fine.

How often should children go to the dentist?

Kids should go see a dentist if you think something is wrong. New Zealand is great because children get checked as part of the schooling system and it’s free until the age of 18. If the dental therapists (dental “nurses” aren’t a thing anymore) there spot something they’ll pass them on to a nearby dentist.

How do I know if there’s something wrong with my child’s teeth?

Generally, they’ll complain about it. If something is feeling sore they’ll let you know. Kids teeth are really thin so it takes only a little bit of decay to lead to an issue. Most of the problems can be sorted out easily by the school dental therapist. The best thing to do is teach them good oral hygiene habits and feed them a good diet and they’ll be all G.

What age should kids start brushing and do you have any tips to keep them brushing?

Kids should start brushing as soon as they have teeth, like as soon as that first incisor pops through. The fluoride in toothpaste actually makes their teeth stronger than they are naturally. The best way to get to brush is to make them jealous of you brushing your teeth and they’ll try to copy. If it takes mocking them to make them do it, then so be it!

How can parents help kids cope when they have to have teeth pulled or get painful procedures done?

As a dentist, I saw a lot of kids who were fine with the whole process, but the parents had instilled their own fears into their kids. It makes it so hard on the person working on them. Speak positively about looking after your teeth and about dentists. Never ever, ever, use words like PAIN because even if you say “it’s not going to be sore” all the kid hears is the word “sore” and it makes everything so, so, difficult. If they go in with a positive mindset they’re generally going to be all good. If your kid is anxious, maybe go into the dentist and get the dentist that’s going to treat them to show them around the place the week before. I would often get a kid in just to say hi, and show them the tools we were going to use and get them comfortable with the space. The dentist should be more than happy to do that if they’re a dentist that is going to do well with your kids.

Why does it cost so much money to go to a dentist? Do you think there should be a fixed fee for some treatments or at least an agreed pricing structure?

It’s true, dentistry is expensive. It’s mainly to do with the costs associated with running a practice. There are sooooo many costs. Everyday people don’t tend to realise that small scale fillings need all the same sterilisation as major surgeries. All the equipment is checked and doubled checked, and needs replacement on a regular basis. The rents are high. Then there’s payment for the receptionist, dental assistants, and practice managers.

People think of dentists as being like tradies, when they are actually full-blown medical practitioners. You get so many people asking you for discounts, which would be fine if you wanted to give up anaesthetic and sterilised equipment! Don’t do that by the way. I’d like to see more government funding go towards dentistry, particularly to retired people and university students. In the meantime, look after your teeth properly (most people don’t) and you can avoid or lessen those costs.

Should people get second opinions when they get told they need work done?

That can be a good idea. As with most medical professionals there can be more than one way to skin a cat. Some dentists recommend treatment earlier than others to limit the damage, whereas others will try non-invasive techniques to reverse early problems and sometimes that can solve the issue. All the dentists I’ve worked with and met have all been good honest people and won’t be putting you wrong.

Have you ever been bitten by a child?

I’ve never been bitten by a child, but I have been bitten by an adult who fell asleep while we were doing a longer procedure. I had to wake him up to get him to release his grip.

Do you ask people questions when they have those things in their mouths that hold their mouths open just for kicks?

This is the question that everyone brings up all the time. If a dentist ever asks you a question that needs a proper response they’ll get everything out of there and let you talk. If it doesn’t need a proper response then normally a “uhh-huh” or “nuh-huh” is all we’re after. Otherwise it’s rhetorical and don’t bother answering!

Have you ever drilled someone just because they seemed like they deserved it?

Haha, no but I’ve been tempted. I had someone break into my car and steal my guitar and THEN come and see me as a patient. But because I’m a goddamn professional I treated him just like anyone else, the bastard.

I would have drilled him. Did you become a dentist because you like hurting people?

I became a dentist for the free floss. Believe it or not, dentistry is about making people’s pain go away. We genuinely want that to happen. The only time dentistry is painful is when people haven’t been looking after their teeth properly themselves and we’re the superheroes coming to the rescue.

OMG RUDE. Does it hurt your feelings that nobody likes dentists?

Yes, it does! All dentists are good people, who have trained long and hard, and are rewarded by having to put up with a lot of shit from everyone. Stop telling us we’re the profession with the highest rate of suicide! It’s not true, that’s kamikaze pilots. There are so many times that patients after the procedure say “that wasn’t as bad as I thought”. So just look after yourselves and then be chill when you need us to help you with making your smile look and feel good.

Got a question for a midwife, a GP or a paediatrician? Send it to emily@thespinoff.co.nz or tweet to @SpinoffParents and you could see it answered next time.


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