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Dental Sealants Shield Against Tooth Decay

A dentist can protect your child's teeth with an invisible plastic coating called a dental sealant. The American Dental Association (ADA) and American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommend sealants as powerful weapons in our arsenal against decay.

Dentists began using sealants in the 1970s, and long-term studies have confirmed their success. The studies show the number of school-age children without cavities in their permanent teeth has doubled since then as the use of dental sealants doubled.

Children with sealants have 50 percent less tooth decay than children without sealants, according to the AAPD. "Years ago, dental decay was part of the life cycle," says Frederick G. More, D.D.S., M.S., associate dean for academic affairs at New York University's College of Dentistry. "Today, it is possible to raise a child without dental decay."

Dentists apply sealants to the chewing surface of back teeth, filling the tiny grooves and pits where bacteria often lodge. If bacteria can't penetrate the enamel, they can't multiply and cause decay.

The teeth most at risk of decay are the molars that come in around ages 6 and 12. Sealants work best if applied soon after these molars emerge, meaning children between 5 and 15 years old benefit most from sealants, Dr. More says.

Tips for tip-top teeth

Dental sealants can't protect teeth by themselves. Other vital steps:

  • Insist children brush and floss a minimum of once every day. Better yet, get them to brush after every meal and snack, if you can.

  • Don't let infants fall asleep with a bottle of milk, juice or soda -- that can cause devastating decay. Don’t fill bottles with sweet drinks.  Limit the infant’s bottle content to water and formula or milk depending on the age.  Also limit the amount of time the child has to suck on the bottle to about 5 minutes, unless the bottle is filled with plain water.  Prolonged exposure to milk or sweet drinks as happens when the toddler carries a bottle around all day long can lead to rapid tooth decay (bottle caries).

  • Drink fluoridated water. If you don't have access to fluoridated water, ask your dentist or health care provider about other sources of fluoride.

  • Offer kids nutritious snacks such as cheese, vegetables, yogurt and milk to build strong teeth. Avoid all sweets, sticky or gooey candies, fruit leathers, or long-lasting hard candies. 

  • Arrange regular dental checkups starting in the first year of life, shortly after the first tooth emerges.