I read a book earlier this year called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. I read it hoping to gain some insight into creating better habits for myself. My goal was to optimize my routines and become more productive and efficient in my daily life. The book was a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it.
Habits exist to free up mental activity. Take tying your shoes for example. What if it took as much effort to tie your shoes as an adult as it did when you were learning as a young kid? Can you imagine how exhausting it would be to waste the mental energy on a task as simple as tying your shoes?
What if we had to use our brain power to go about making thousands of micro-decisions all throughout our day? Habits can be incredibly powerful tools to simplify our lives.
Imagine driving to work every day and having to consciously decide which route to take and what roads to turn on. Most of us drive to and from work on auto-pilot. And that’s a good thing because this frees up our mental space for higher brain function like listening to the radio, thinking about our day, etc.
Without habits, we would be mentally worn down by having to focus our attention on our most basic, routine jobs and tasks.
Now that we know that habits are actually useful tools that to help us make complex tasks and chores simpler or automatic, we are faced with some questions. What if we could establish habits to make taking care of our teeth “mindless”, simpler, or more routine? What would that look like? How would we do it?
First, let’s dig a little deeper. It will help to understand how a habit works.
Generally, our brains are constantly searching for patterns. When it notices a pattern of behavior, your mind will associate these environmental cues with the behavior you performed, and form a habit.
Your brain notices things like: You went to the restroom? You washed your hands. Got up early in the morning (or any time of day if you’re like me…)? Make a cup of coffee. It’s Tuesday. You call your mom on Tuesday. Things like that. The mind is constantly searching for these patterns. Once it senses one, it will learn what to do, catalog the activity associated with it, and then proceed to not “pay attention” to it. Boom. A habit has been formed.
So if you want to establish a habit of waking up early in the morning, you might start by setting an alarm. If you force yourself to get up right when your alarm goes off, instead of allowing yourself to hit the snooze button, you’ll be automatically waking up before your alarm within a few weeks.
*beep beep beep* Habit.
Good Oral Health Habits
If we want to form healthy habits to limit our risk of cavities and ensure that we have optimal oral health, all we need to do is create a cue. Then with that cue, we can trigger the brain to auto-respond and perform the habit.
So what habits should we choose to establish for optimal dental health?
Below, I have outlined three simple habits. If followed, these habits will definitely increase the oral health of your child. Good oral health will lead to fewer cavities and more healthy check-ups.
The rule of thumb is brushing for two minutes a day, twice a day. Why? Well, it’s easy to remember, and long enough to ensure you had a chance to cover all the surfaces of all the teeth. However, it’s important to know if you aren’t brushing well, it doesn’t matter how long you do it. Your goal with tooth brushing is to remove all of the plaque! Plaque is the build-up of those cavity-causing bacteria, so make sure you get it removed!
No plaque = Happy, Healthy Smiles!
2. Daily Flossing
As mentioned above, the ADA also recommends flossing daily as the other critical behavior for oral infection prevention. Flossing helps remove larger debris from between the teeth in all those nooks and crannies your toothbrush just can’t reach.
If you refer back to our previous blog, The Problem with the Dentist, you’ll remember these in-between surfaces are the “high risk” areas for cavity development. Brushing won’t get the job done in these spots. Do yourself and your teeth a favor and floss daily! (And more often if you get food stuck between your teeth like popcorn or berries!)
3.Choose Water Instead of Sugary Drinks
Sugary drinks are one of the biggest risks for cavity formation and other health problems. While our teeth are covered in a protective coat of armor (enamel), they can’t protect themselves from repeated exposure to acidic or sugary drinks like:
Even milk puts your child’s teeth at risk!
I have a lot of parents who tell me something along the lines of: “yeah, but my kid won’t drink anything else.” I get it. I have kids too. The oldest loves sodas and juices, while the other two only drink water or milk (the fourth one is a newborn baby, so no drinks for her yet!). Once you’ve let the “cat out of the bag” and your kid has had other drinks, your job definitely gets harder. If your kids already drink these drinks – don’t panic! Start with making small, sustainable changes. If you try to switch “cold turkey” to only water, it’ll never last. Make a small change first, like no sugary drinks in between meals, or even better, limit sugary drinks to just one meal a day.
New parents – the best thing you can do is to not expose them to these sugary drinks at all.
I promise you, under normal circumstances, a healthy kid won’t let himself or herself stay thirsty or get dehydrated. If you start with water it’s much easier to avoid them developing a taste for these sugary drinks. There’s an added bonus here: water is way cheaper than the drinks you buy at the supermarket or gas station. In this case, what’s good for your teeth is also good for your wallet!
Why are These Habits Important?
With good brushing twice a day, flossing once a day, and avoiding sugary drinks, you can all but eliminate your child’s risk of developing cavities. These habits are pretty simple and straightforward, aren’t they? But if you’ve ever tried to make healthy eating or regular exercise a habit, then you know – good habit formation is never easy. It does take consistent work.
When forming good habits, your best strategy is to win simple victories that you can build on. Remember, your goal here is to set your child up for good health for a lifetime. The trickiest part with a new habit is getting started. If you commit to doing it, you’ll be on the right path and you’ll be doing everything you can to ensure that your child is as healthy as can be!
Get creative. Set reminders or alarms on your phone. Save money at the checkout counter and skip the soda. Start making small changes today and watch them snowball into big results for your kids’ sweet smiles!
Keep Your Kids’ Smiles Healthy
In addition to good oral health at home, regular teeth cleanings and exams are also crucial to the long-term health of your child’s mouth. Make sure to schedule regular appointments and cleanings to keep your children smiling for years to come.
If you have any questions at all on methods to improve your child’s oral health, feel free to give Children’s Dentistry of Charlottesville a call at (434) 817-1817.