Caring for teeth is a lifelong practice, but for many families in Metro Vancouver, that message is not getting across.

Nearly 20 per cent of kindergarten-age children in Richmond have visible tooth decay, public health workers found in a recent screening.

Christina Salgado, manager of community and family health with Vancouver Coastal Health, was involved in the study. The results are startling, she told CBC host of The Early Edition Rick Cluff.  

"I am surprised," she said. "For all the Vancouver Coastal Health Region, we are the highest."

Across the province, kindergarteners are screened every three years for dental hygiene. About 14 per cent of schoolchildren in British Columbia have visible decay, Salgado said.

"It really points to we need to do more work around early childhood dental health," she said.

'Clearer message'

Salgado met with parents in the Richmond community, surveying their perceptions and practices around dental hygiene, and said the root of the problem is conflicting messages about caring for children's teeth.   

"They are hearing different messages from different healthcare providers. They are not sure of when to brush or what to do," she said. "We need to deliver a clearer message and a simpler message."

Baby teeth, even though they eventually fall out, are important for healthy gums and adult teeth.

Despite advertisements showing toddlers holding toothbrushes, parents should brush their children's teeth twice a day until they are eight years old, Salgado said. Before that age, children struggle to effectively clean the bottoms, tops and sides by themselves.

There was also confusion over how much toothpaste to use and what kind to buy.

Salgado recommends choosing toothpaste with fluoride because water in the Lower Mainland is not fluoridated.  

For children under the age of three, use a dosage the size of a rice grain, she said. For those over three, the toothpaste glob should be the size of a pea.

"Every child is at risk of tooth decay," Salgado said. "It's important that parents start looking after their baby teeth as soon as they come in."

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition