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When should you start brushing your kid's teeth? As soon as they appear. Start cleaning out a baby’s mouth even before any teeth appear using a wet washcloth. Tooth decay -- although largely preventable with good care -- is one of the most common chronic diseases of children and teens ages 6 to 19. By kindergarten, more than 40% of kids have cavities.

Neglecting baby teeth isn't the only misstep parents can make. Here’s an 8-step game plan for good oral health.

Start Early

Your child should see a dentist by his first birthday. Early preventive care saves money in the long run. A CDC report found that dental care costs were nearly 40% lower over a 5-year period for children who saw a dentist by age 5.

Teach Good Habits

Brushing is crucial from the get-go. Even before your baby has teeth, you can gently brush her gums. Use water on a baby toothbrush, or clean them with a soft washcloth.

 "A lot of people think they don't have to brush baby teeth," says Beverly Largent, a Paducah, KY, dentist and past president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "If there's just one tooth, you can use gauze."

When teeth appear, brush twice daily with an infant toothbrush and fluoridated toothpaste. Start flossing when two teeth touch each other. Ask your dentist about techniques and schedules, Largent says.

Brush and floss just before bedtime. No food or drink, except water, until the next morning. 

Your dentist can recommend when to start using mouthwash. "I advise parents to wait until the child can definitely spit the mouthwash out," says Mary Hayes, a pediatric dentist in Chicago. "Mouthwash is a rinse and not a beverage."

Avoid 'Baby Bottle Decay'

Don't put your infant or older child down for a nap with a bottle of juice, formula, or milk. Sugary liquids cling to baby's teeth, feeding bacteria that can trigger tooth decay. If you must give your child a bottle to take to bed, make sure it contains only water.

Skip the Juice

Many parents think juice is a healthy daylong choice for a beverage, but that's not the case. It has been linked to childhood obesity and tooth decay.

Limit kids to no more than 4 ounces a day of 100% fruit juice, and restrict sugary drinks and foods to mealtimes. Use juice as a treat, Hayes says.

Control the Sippy Cup

A sippy cup helps kids move from a bottle to a regular cup. Many kids keep the cup with them all day. "Prolonged use of a sippy cup," Largent says, "can cause decay on the back of the front teeth," if the beverages are sugary.

Ditch the Binky by 2 or 3

Pacifiers used in the first year of life may actually help prevent sudden infant death syndrome. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests using a pacifier when putting your infant to sleep but not reinserting once baby drifts off. Long-term use can affect how the top and bottom teeth line up (the "bite") or can affect the shape of the mouth.

"Pacifiers are for infants, not for toddlers," Largent says. She discourages long-term use of even the "orthodontically correct" pacifiers and recommends stopping their use by age 2. Talk to your doctor if the habit continues beyond age 3.

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