A child's dental care really starts with his or her mother's healthy pregnancy, because baby teeth begin to form before birth. If you are pregnant, make sure to eat a balanced, nutritious diet and get an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals. It's important for pregnant women to have a complete dental exam and have any cavities or gum disease treated.
Your child's first teeth (primary teeth ) usually begin to break through the gums (erupt) at about 6 months of age, although the timing varies among children. All of the 20 primary teeth should come in between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Your child will lose his or her primary teeth between the ages of 6 and 11. For more information, see the topic Teething.
See more information on your child's tooth development.
Starting to visit a dentist
By the time your child is 6 months of age, your doctor should assess the likelihood of your child having future dental problems. This may include a dental exam of the mother and her dental history, as the condition of her teeth can often predict her child's teeth. If the doctor thinks your child will have dental problems, be sure your child sees a dentist by his or her first birthday or 6 months after the first primary teeth appear , whichever comes first. After your first visit, schedule regular visits every 6 months or as your dentist recommends.
Experts recommend that your child's visits to a dentist start within 6 months after the first teeth appear or at 12 months of age, whichever comes first. Babies with dental problems caused by injury, disease, or a developmental problem should be seen by a children's (pediatric) dentist right away. If these dental problems are not limited to the surfaces of the teeth, your baby should also be seen by a children's doctor (pediatrician) or your family doctor.
For more information, see the topic:
Caring for your child's teeth and gums
It's best to start good oral health habits before permanent teeth come in.
- Use a soft cloth to clean your baby's gums. Start a few days after birth, and do this until the first teeth come in.
- Parents and caregivers often share spoons, forks, and other utensils with babies. The saliva you may leave on the utensil contains bacteria that can cause tooth decay. Sometimes, kissing can also transfer bacteria. You can help prevent early childhood tooth decay in your child by making sure that your family practices good dental health habits. Keeping your own teeth and gums healthy reduces the risk of transferring tooth decay bacteria to your child.
- Do not put your infant or small child to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, juice, or other product that contains sugar. The sugar and acids in these liquids can cause tooth decay (bottle mouth ). Do not prop the bottle up in your baby's mouth. Remove the bottle as soon as your baby is done feeding or is asleep. Breastfeeding your infant to sleep is safe, however. Encourage your baby to begin drinking from a cup at about 4 to 6 months of age.
- 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.
- 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.
- Do not give your child mouthwashes that contain alcohol. If your child age 6 or older has cavities, ask the dentist if your child should try mouthwash that contains fluoride. But watch to make sure your child does not swallow it.
- Keep your child away from cigarette smoke (secondhand smoke). Tobacco smoke may contribute to the development of tooth decay, gum disease, and other health issues.1 As your child grows, teach him or her about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke.
- 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.
- If your child sucks his or her fingers or thumb, help your child to stop. If the child can't stop, see your dentist. For more information, see the topic Thumb-Sucking.
Brushing and flossing
- Start cleaning your child's teeth with a soft toothbrush as soon as the teeth come in. Brush your child's teeth twice a day using a small, soft brush. If your child is younger than 3 years, ask your dentist if it's okay to use a rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Use a pea-sized amount for children ages 3 to 6 years. 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 how to teach your child to floss.
- Brush and floss your child's teeth for the first few years, until your child can do it alone. Your child can learn how to brush his or her own teeth at about age 3. Children should be brushing their own teeth morning and night by age 4, although you should supervise and check for proper cleaning.
- Encourage your child to watch you brush your teeth at a proper angle , so he or she knows how to brush the right way. A good teaching method is to have your child brush in the morning and you brush at night until your child masters the skill.
- Use disclosing tablets from time to time to see whether any plaque is left on the teeth after brushing. Disclosing tablets are chewable and will color any plaque left on the teeth after the child brushes. You can buy these at most drugstores.