Dental Hygiene Tips for Children

We think every child should have healthy teeth and a beautiful smile.

Proper dental care can give your child an important head start in life. It's the crucial first step to having their teeth stay healthy and attractive for decades to come. It can give them the lifelong confidence that comes with a healthy smile. And with regular dental checkups every six months, your child can also avoid some of the serious health problems that can result from poor dental hygiene.

What can I do when my child starts teething?

Children generally start teething at around 5 or 6 months, but this can vary-some children don't get their first tooth until they're a year old. When teething begins, your child's gums may be swollen where a tooth is about to break through. To ease the discomfort give them a cool spoon, cold washcloth or one-piece teething ring or pacifier to suck on. (Those with more than one piece may become unattached and cause choking.) Never give infants pacifiers that have been dipped in sweet liquids. Sugar from such liquids stays on the teeth and attracts bacteria that can cause tooth decay. It's also not a good idea for Mom to clean a pacifier in her mouth, as that can spread bacteria to the child.

What causes drooling?

When infants are several months old, they begin to produce more saliva than they are able to swallow, which causes them to drool. Also, at about the same age, they begin to put objects in their mouths and bite or chew on them. Drooling and chewing on objects (or rubbing them against the gum) are a natural part of an infant's development and may or may not signify teething.

Why are baby teeth important?

Baby teeth, or primary teeth, help children chew food, speak clearly and reserve space for their permanent teeth, which will start coming in around 5 or 6 years of age. It is important to get children into the habit of good dental care at an early age, because it will likely lead to them having good dental habits and healthier teeth as adults.

What is fluoride and why is it important?

Fluoride is a natural chemical that may already be in your drinking water (or your toothpaste.) It strengthens enamel, the hard outer coating on teeth. Enamel production occurs before baby teeth break through so even before teeth actually appear, fluoride helps prevent decay.

Fluoride also helps repair early damage to teeth. The fluoride content of local water supplies varies. Water that has low levels of fluoride can be a problem for infants who get very little fluoride from breast milk or formula. Check with your local water department to find out the exact water fluoride level in your area. Then talk with your child's dentist to see if your child needs additional fluoride. Infants who are not getting enough fluoride should start taking additional amounts at 6 months of age, and continue until they are at least 16 years old.

When (and how) should I start cleaning my child's teeth?

Before the first teeth appear, gently wipe the baby's gums after each feeding with a damp gauze pad or clean washcloth. Once teeth appear, begin using a baby-sized toothbrush with either water or a small smear of fluoride toothpaste. Then, when the child is old enough to spit rather than swallow (around two years), begin using a small, pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Continue to either brush the child's teeth yourself or closely supervise the process, as prior to age 5 or 6, children will not do an adequate job all by themselves.

It's also a good idea to check for early signs of decay. These appear as white, yellow or brown spots on the teeth. Some children may develop decay in spite of the best preventive efforts.

When should my child be taken off the bottle?

Children should be taken off the bottle around or shortly after their first birthday.

Does thumb sucking cause problems?

Thumb sucking and using pacifiers are normal and shouldn't cause problems if the child quits by age 3. Continuing past that age can lead to crooked teeth or bite problems, and the child should be evaluated by his or her dentist to determine if problems are developing.

Can putting children to bed with a bottle harm their teeth?

Infants put to bed with a bottle of milk (juice should not be given in a bottle, but served in a cup at snack time) have a higher risk of developing "baby bottle tooth decay." When these infants fall asleep, the sugar in the milk remains in their mouths creating a breeding ground for bacteria that can damage teeth and lead to decay. Toddlers who carry around and suck on a bottle filled with milk (or worse, juice or other sugary liquids) can also develop baby bottle tooth decay. Here are some steps you can take to avoid the problem:

  • A night bottle should never contain anything but water.
  • Do not use a bottle of milk or juice as a pacifier during the day. Don't let a child walk around with a bottle.
  • Teach children to drink from a cup as soon as they are old enough to hold one-most children can do this well before their first birthday.
  • Children should consume sugared drinks only with meals or snacks, and water in-between meals.

Are there other eating habits that are bad for a child's teeth?

Sweets like candy or cookies can lead to tooth decay. Starchy foods such as crackers and sticky foods like raisins tend to stay on the teeth longer, and are more likely to lead to tooth decay. Sugar from fruits and fruit juices left on the teeth for long periods of time can also cause problems. Starches and fruits, however, are a necessary part of any child's diet, so to help avoid tooth decay, give children these foods only at mealtime (before the teeth have been brushed), not at bedtime.

When should children be seen by a dentist?

When your child's first tooth appears, it's a good idea to see a dentist who is experienced with children. A pediatric dentist specializes in the care of children's teeth, but many general dentists are also fully capable of meeting your child's general dental needs. From that first visit on, it's important that your child then have regular dental checkups at least every six months, and if recommended by their dentist, even more frequently.

Some other reasons to bring your child to the dentist:

  • If the child chips or injures a tooth or has an injury to the face or mouth.
  • If the teeth show any signs of discoloration.
  • If a tooth is painful or sensitive to hot or cold foods or liquids, which could be a sign of decay.