Family health

My four-year-old had 10 cavities and I feel like a total failure

In hindsight, there are a few things I probably should have done differently...

By the time you have your third kid, you kind of think you’ve seen it all. But our third born introduced a few new quirks and personality traits we hadn’t seen before. On the bright side, he’s charming, curious and has a great sense of humour. But he can be very stubborn. And this was never more apparent than when it came to brushing his teeth.

We started brushing our kids’ teeth whenever we detected that first little nub poking through the gum. Depending on the kid, we used a fairly standard baby toothbrush, a finger brush or the Baby Banana brush. We always started with just water and then graduated to toothpaste when they got old enough. My older two loved the sickly sweet kid toothpaste—it seemed to be enough to get them jazzed about tooth-brushing. I even once caught one of them sucking it straight out of the tube.

But it was at the toothpaste phase that my youngest put on the brakes. He was never a fan of having a brush or a finger in his mouth, but with the introduction of any form of toothpaste, it was game over. He refused to open his mouth or engage whatsoever. I tried everything, including ordering flavourless toothpaste from Amazon.

I came to completely dread the twice-daily tooth-brushing battle. It became a massive struggle and a huge stress on me. I was at such a loss, I think I slowly began to give up. I rationalized it by thinking, We’ll do better tomorrow. But tomorrow was never any better. We managed to do some version of brushing once or twice a week with water alone, but even that was a challenge. At this point, he had already been treated for two cavities, and I was dreading our next visit to the dentist.

And then came the reckoning. My perfect little four-year-old had ten cavities. TEN. The guilt was overwhelming. How could I have let this happen?!

Our options from there were limited. Our dentist recommended he get knocked out to avoid multiple, traumatic visits to the dentist’s office. We booked in with a paediatric dentist a few months later. He came out of the two-hour procedure like a champ—woozy from the anesthesia, but no worse for wear. Luckily, we had health benefits that covered some of the expense (but not all—ouch).

Obviously, from there we were determined to not let this happen again and committed to a different path. And today, almost a year after the procedure, I’m happy to report that he now brushes his teeth, with toothpaste, and at his most recent appointment, the dentist said he has no new cavities.

I’ve learned a lot since this all went down. In hindsight, there are some things we could have done differently.

  • When he refused the toothpaste, I could have continued on with just water. I’ve learned that brushing with a toothbrush and water only, if necessary, can be pretty effective, especially if you can add flossing to the routine, too.
  • I should have given him more control. Letting kids take ownership over tooth brushing usually makes it way less stressful. They won’t do as good a job, but it won’t escalate into such a big thing.
  • Limit juice intake, or better yet, eliminate it. I admit it, my son used to be a juice junkie, but we’ve now replaced that with water (which, bonus, also contains fluoride).
  • Get creative. Older siblings can be used to model good behaviour; parents can play Follow the Leader or Simon Says during tooth brushing; and it’s a good idea to celebrate good tooth-brushing with an extra bedtime story.
  • Before the cavity debacle, I never sat down and calmly spoke to our son about the importance of caring for his teeth. I just tried to force it. Kids understand more than we think they do.

Another thing I’ve learned is the situation is way more common than you think. Parents just don’t talk about it. Still, I’d like to think parents are more than the sum of one not-so-perfect moment or phase. Although this experience is drilled into my brain (pun intended), we’ve moved forward and look forward to a do-over as his adult teeth come in.