What Should You Know About Your Child’s Oral Health?

When should you take your child to the dentist? How can you protect against kids' cavities? WebMD asked an expert.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 01, 2010
4 min read

When your baby is born, you quickly fall into a rhythm of regular visits with your pediatrician that continues throughout childhood. But many parents are more confused about taking their child to the dentist and caring for their teeth.

WebMD asked Natasha Mathias, DDS, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry in Montclair, N.J., to answer some of the most common questions she hears from parents -- and some questions she wishes parents would ask, but don’t!

Should my child see a pediatric dentist?

This is the most common question I get. “Why can’t I just take my child to my own dentist?” For the same reason you don’t take your child to your own internist -- you take her to a pediatrician. Children are not miniature adults. Their bodies are very different, and so are their teeth. A pediatric dentist has expertise in those differences.

Why should I take my toddler to the dentist when his baby teeth will just fall out anyway?

We may lose our primary teeth eventually, but their health is very important to our oral health over the long term. Once a baby tooth gets bacteria in there, it progresses pretty quickly, seeping through the tooth and going to the bone and potentially causing dental infections that can even be fatal. That’s the worst consequence. But even if that doesn’t happen, if bacteria lurk in the baby teeth, the enamel for the adult teeth may not be formed properly and they can be permanently damaged.

How much fluoride does my child need? How much is too much?

Optimum fluoride levels in the water, we know from research, are about one part per million. If it’s more than that, it’s a problem and can lead to fluorosis --discoloration of the teeth. If it’s much less than that, it’s not enough to protect the teeth. You can find out how much fluoride is in your water by calling your municipal water supplier, or buying a water testing kit online. If you live in an area where the water isn’t fluoridated, your pediatrician or pediatric dentist can give you a prescription for fluoride supplements.

When should I take my child to the dentist for the first time?

When they get their first tooth or reach their first birthday, whichever is earlier. Many people are shocked that it’s so early. The older guideline was age three, just because that’s when general dentists found they could manage a child. But at three, we often find that damage has already been done from baby bottle tooth decay or cavities.

How should I prepare my child for his first visit to the dentist?

Present it as something fun and exciting, and as a sign that he is growing up. Tell your child that we will “count,” “brush,” and “take pictures” of his/her teeth. By explaining the exam and the cleaning in these terms, your child will better understand the situation. Avoid negative words such as “hurt,” “drill,” “pull,” and “shot.” Don’t tell your child, “The dentist won’t hurt you” -- this may never have entered his mind in the first place! Reassure him that the dentist and staff will be gentle and friendly.

What should my child eat and drink to protect his teeth?

This is one of those questions parents don’t ask me, but I wish they would! First, don’t give your child juice all the time, especially the juice boxes. Most of them are not nutritious. If your child must have juice, follow the 1-2-3 rule: only one cup of juice a day, along with two glasses of milk and three glasses of water. The best snacks for a child are those that don’t come in a plastic package: fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, milk, yogurt, and cheese. Don’t peel your child’s apples and other fruit --the edible peels are where most of the nutrients come from, and they help to scrub the teeth.

When is my child ready for “real” toothpaste?

As soon as they’re old enough to spit -- usually around age three. Once they’re in enough control to be potty trained, they have enough control to spit out fluoridated toothpaste. “Children’s” toothpastes are like training wheels -- they can’t do much harm. But they also aren’t all that useful. Make sure your child brushes his teeth after breakfast, not before, so they start the day with a clean mouth. And after brushing teeth at night, nothing else to eat or drink except water.

When do I need to wean my child from thumb sucking or using a pacifier?

Prolonged pacifier or thumb sucking can deform a child’s upper dental arch and cause things like crossbite and protruding teeth. Children should be weaned from the habit by no later than 2 ½ or 3 years old. At that point, if any damage has been done to their bite by the sucking, we can usually undo it without too much difficulty. But if they get much past three and aren’t stopping, braces will have to fix it at some point later on.