Teaching Kids about Teeth

Helping children learn more about their bodies and how they work is a key part of nurturing healthy habits. That includes their teeth – the topic of a new children’s book we were recently given a copy of.

Open Wide book coverOpen Wide by St. Louis writer Susan Grigsby is a richly illustrated journey through a wide range of topics, from anatomy to animal dentition, biology to what to expect at a dental appointment. It’s written for kids age 6 to 8 – an age at which kids are starting to lose their primary teeth and are able to brush and floss well on their own.

In other words, it’s an ideal time to teach them more about their teeth.

The book begins with a nice, basic discussion of the structure of teeth and the specific purpose of each type of tooth. Here and throughout, Grigsby balances talk of human teeth with those of animals. Comparing with a family pet – or cute or strange animal in nature – can be sentimental and relevant to a child. They seem apt to draw and keep a child’s attention – from differences in cleaning visits to how many teeth humans lose compared to common household pets and even cases in which braces might be suitable for a dog.

Another fun angle the book takes is around science and the mystery of teeth. Readers learn how the science of teeth can provide “clues to the past,” historical information on the tooth’s owner or environment. Forensic dentistry is given a spotlight, too, educating kids on cool professions that can follow from a passion for tooth science.

We also learn all kinds of tooth trivia, including Tooth Fairy traditions from around the globe, different ways in which people mark the rite of passage that comes with the loss of our first teeth. Grigsby also does a nice job of providing resources for further exploration, including books, museums, and websites.

Although Grigsby correctly notes that “the health of your mouth – including teeth, gums, tongue, and jaws – can affect the health of your entire body,” it’s important to note that this book is written from a conventional dental perspective. That means fluoride treatments, supplements, and rinses are mentioned without question. It “helps prevent tooth decay,” says the text.

Yet current research has shown that topical fluoride does not, in fact, prevent caries. At best, it slows the progression of decay. Similarly, one study published last year in the Journal of Dental Research on sugar consumption and caries found that “even…low level of sugar consumption was related to dental caries, despite the use of fluoride” [emphasis added].

Milk Menu illustrationWhat does help is keeping sugar consumption to a bare minimum. According to one 2014 study, this means less than 3% of total daily calories. For a 2000 calorie diet, that means no more than 60 calories or 15.5 grams of sugar a day.

Yet the book’s message on sugar is a little conflicted. In some places, sugar is warned against – albeit somewhat mildly. Yet in a section on dairy, a global “Milk Menu” is made up mostly of foods high in added sugars and other refined carbohydrates (which your body digests as sugar).

It’s a little weird. And problematic. (Even more if your family follows a dairy-free diet, since there is a heavy emphasis on dairy.)

Aside from that, Open Wide can be a fun way to get kids interested in teeth. Still, we’d love to see a kids’ book that comes at the matter from a more holistic, biological viewpoint – not just on the teeth themselves but their relationship to overall health.

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