All of a child's 20 primary (baby) teeth usually break through the gums (erupt) between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Then the permanent teeth begin to emerge, usually starting at about age 6. Your child probably had his or her first trip to the dentist between 6 and 12 months of age, and now you probably have regular appointments set up. If for some reason your child has not yet seen a dentist, make an appointment for an exam.
Your 3- to 6-year-old child will be busily developing language skills and exploring the ever-widening world. Hard as it is to get a preschooler to sit still, this is the age during which you can teach good dental health habits.
- Your child can learn how to brush his or her own teeth at about 3 years of age and should be brushing his or her own teeth, morning and night, by age 4. You should still supervise and check for proper cleaning.
- Give your child a small, soft toothbrush, and apply fluoridated toothpaste in an amount about the size of a small green pea. Encourage your child to watch you and older siblings brush teeth. A good teaching method is to have your child brush in the morning and you brush at night until your child masters the skill. Teach your child not to swallow the toothpaste.
- Start flossing your child's teeth as soon as they touch each other. You may find plastic flossing tools helpful. Talk with your dentist about the right timing and technique to floss your child's teeth and to teach your child to floss.
- If your 4-year-old sucks his or her fingers or thumb, help him or her to stop. If the child can't stop, see your dentist. A children's dentist (pediatric dentist) is specially trained to treat this problem. For more information, see the topic Thumb-Sucking.
- Give your child nutritious foods to maintain healthy gums, develop strong teeth, and avoid tooth decay. These include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Try to avoid foods that are high in sugar and processed carbohydrates, such as pastries, pasta, and white bread.
- Discuss your child's fluoride needs with your dentist. If your child needs extra fluoride, your dentist may recommend a supplement or a gel or varnish that he or she would apply to your child's teeth. Use supplements only as directed. And keep them out of reach of your child. Too much fluoride can be toxic and can stain a child's teeth.
- Keep your child away from cigarette smoke (secondhand smoke). Tobacco smoke may contribute to the development of tooth decay and gum disease.1 As your child grows, teach him or her about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.
After your child's permanent teeth begin to appear, usually around age 6, talk with your dentist about having dental sealant placed on the molars. Sealants are made of hard plastic and protect the chewing surfaces of the back teeth from decay.
Children play hard, sometimes hard enough to knock out or break a tooth. Learn how to prevent injuries to teeth, and what to do in a dental emergency. For more information, see the topic Mouth and Dental Injuries.