Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child’s Teeth

Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child’s Teeth Family Doctor Logo

Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child’s Teeth

How can I best care for my child’s teeth?

Good dental hygiene habits should begin before your child’s first tooth comes in. Wiping your baby’s gums with a soft damp cloth after feedings helps to prevent the buildup of bacteria. When teeth appear, start using a soft children’s toothbrush twice a day.

Fluoride is known to reduce cavities in primary teeth (baby teeth) and permanent teeth (adult teeth). Your child can get it from drinking water, (if your community’s water is fluoridated), or from an oral fluoride supplement prescribed by your doctor beginning at 6 months of age. Your child will have additional cavity protection if your doctor or dental professional applies a fluoride varnish to primary “baby” teeth once they appear and every 6 to 12 months after that.

Once your child is preschool-age, start using fluoride toothpaste. Don’t cover the brush with toothpaste; a small pea-sized amount is just right.

What about using fluoride tablets?

Fluoride helps make teeth strong by hardening the tooth enamel. Many cities are required to add fluoride to tap water. If you live in an area where the tap water doesn’t contain fluoride, ask your doctor to prescribe a daily fluoride tablet or liquid when your child is about 6 months old. If you have fluoridated water, do not use “reverse osmosis” water filters (located on faucet taps) because they remove fluoride. Other types of filters (like Brita) do not remove fluoride and are okay to use. Fluoride is an important part of your child’s dental health, but don’t give him or her more than the directions call for. If you miss a dose, don’t give your child extra fluoride to make up. Too much oral fluoride from swallowed toothpaste or supplements can cause stains on your child’s teeth.

What are cavities?

Cavities are holes that are formed when bacteria (germs) in your mouth use the sugar in food to make acid. This acid eats away at the teeth. Cavities are common in children. Good tooth care can keep cavities from forming on your child’s teeth.

Is my child at risk for cavities?

Your child might be at risk for cavities if he or she eats a lot of sugary foods (such as raisins, cookies, and candy) and drinks a lot of sweet liquids (such as fruit juice, punch, soda, and sweetened drinks). Your child also might be at risk if he or she has any of the following risk factors:

  • Was born early (prematurely) or weighed very little at birth (low birth weight)
  • Has ongoing special health care needs
  • Has white spots or brown areas on any teeth
  • Does not go to the dentist very often

How can I help stop cavities?

Everyone in your family should take good care of their teeth. Family members with lots of cavities can pass the cavity-causing bacteria to babies and children.

Teeth should be brushed at least twice a day and adults should floss once a day. Parents should brush their children’s teeth until they have learned to do it well. Everyone should see the dentist twice a year. Have your doctor or dentist show you the right way to brush your child’s teeth.

Does diet affect my child’s teeth?

Yes. Avoiding sweets, sticky foods, and between meal snacks is good advice. To avoid cavities, limit sweet snacks and drinks between meals. Have meals and snacks at regular times. Teeth-friendly snacks include foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Baby bottles can create additional problems with your child’s dental health. When liquid from a bottle, like milk and juice, stays in contact with the teeth for a long time, the sugars cause tooth decay. This can create a condition called bottle mouth. Your baby’s teeth can develop cavities and become pitted or discolored. Never put a baby to bed with a bottle. Don’t let your child walk around during the day with a bottle, and teach your child to use a drinking cup around his or her 1st birthday.

Is thumb sucking bad for my child?

It’s normal for children to suck their thumbs, their fingers, or a pacifier. Most children give up this habit on their own by age 4, with no harm done to their teeth. If your child still has a sucking habit after age 4, tell your dentist. Your dentist can watch carefully for any problems as teeth develop. In most children, there is no reason to worry about a sucking habit until around age 6, when the permanent front teeth come in.

When should I start taking my child to the dentist?

The American Dental Association recommends that parents take their child to a dentist no later than his or her 1st birthday. This gives the dentist a chance to look for early problems with your child’s teeth. Pediatric dentists specialize in treating children’s dental health. You and your child’s dentist should review important information about diet, bottles, tooth brushing, and fluoride use. Visiting the dentist from a young age will help your child become comfortable with his or her dentist. It also establishes the good habit of regular dental checkups.