A child’s first choppers are an exciting milestone for parents and babies alike.
But even before those pearly whites pop through — on average, the first baby teeth come in between 4 and 7 months of age — it’s important to establish good dental health.
“It’s vital to take care of your baby’s teeth now to establish the habits that will lead him toward a lifetime of good dental health,” said Dr. Jeffrey Berlin, a pediatric dentist at Akron Children’s Celeste Myers Dental Clinic. “Even babies can develop tooth decay if good habits aren’t practiced.”
It’s no surprise sugar is the culprit for cavities. But what may surprise you is that the harsh effects of sugar intake are based on quantity and frequency.
For example, it’s far better for a child to have his juice box at lunch and finish it than to carry it around all day and sip on it slowly. When the sugars from juice or milk remain on a baby’s teeth for hours, they can eat away at the enamel, creating a condition known as “early childhood caries.”
“That’s why sleeping with a bottle at night is detrimental to a baby’s teeth,” said Dr. Berlin. “It’s 10 hours worth of exposing his teeth to sugar. By the time that child is 2, he can have severe tooth decay.”
Pocked, pitted, discolored or chalky white front teeth are signs of early childhood caries. Severe cases result in cavities, which can require extensive treatment and sometimes even extraction of those teeth. Decayed or lost baby teeth may lead to problems with permanent teeth in the future, including extensive orthodontic work or worse.
“Baby teeth serve as place holders for the permanent teeth,” Dr. Berlin explained. “If baby teeth are lost too early due to decay, the teeth that are left in the mouth may shift and not leave enough room for adult teeth to come in.”
To keep your baby’s teeth healthy and strong — and that adorable grin wide and bright — Dr. Berlin answers your top 5 questions about good dental hygiene.
When should I start my baby’s dental care?
Good dental care begins before your baby’s first tooth appears. Just because you can’t see the teeth doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Teeth actually begin to form in the second trimester of pregnancy. At birth, your baby has 20 primary teeth, some of which are fully developed in the jaw.
Even before your baby starts teething, run a clean, damp washcloth over the gums daily to clear away harmful bacteria.
“Wiping and rinsing the mouth out can help prevent certain fungal infections, such as thrush,” said Dr. Berlin. “It also gets the baby accustomed to an object in his mouth and in the habit of ‘brushing’ his teeth every morning and evening.”
When should my baby start using fluoride toothpaste?
You should use fluoride toothpaste as soon as your baby’s teeth pop through. Before the age of 3, dispense fluoride toothpaste about the size of a rice grain onto the toothbrush. Then, until about age 6, use a pea-sized amount.
“This way, babies get the benefit of using fluoride toothpaste, but the amount of toothpaste is age appropriate in the case of ingestion,” said Dr. Berlin. “Too much fluoride can cause tooth discoloration.”
An age-appropriate soft toothbrush is best for your baby’s delicate gums. If the brush is too big, it’ll be difficult to maneuver in your baby’s small mouth.
How often should I brush my baby’s teeth?
Just like adults, babies’ teeth should be brushed twice daily. The most critical time is before bed.
“The toothbrush should be the last thing in your baby’s mouth before going to bed,” Dr. Berlin offered. “After you brush his teeth, don’t give him any milk, juice or even sweetened medicines because that’s when we see problems. Never put a baby to bed with any beverage.”
He recommends you sit cross-legged on the floor with your baby’s head in your lap. That way, you can get the same view as the dentist while brushing and can see everything.
Do I really need to floss my baby’s teeth?
Once your baby’s teeth touch, you should begin flossing in between them. Sometimes the front teeth never touch, and that’s a good thing. That means there’s plenty of room for the permanent teeth. However, later on your child’s molars most likely will have contact, so it’s a good idea to floss in between them at that time.
When should I schedule my baby’s first dental exam?
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends children have their first dental visit by 12 months of age. At this first visit, the dentist will explain proper brushing and flossing techniques and do a modified exam while your baby sits on your lap.
These initial visits are meant to lead children on the path to good oral health, as well as getting babies used to seeing the dentist so they’ll have less fear about going as they get older. The dentist will discuss with you good practices and harmful habits to avoid.
“The whole concept of that first visit is to establish a dental home and a strong relationship with a provider,” said Dr. Berlin. “Also, if we do see a problem arising, we can educate the family and intercept it at these early visits. Many dental problems are preventable with education and good practices.”