When your baby flashes his gummy smile, caring for teeth that have yet to sprout is probably the last thing on your mind. "The surprising thing to a lot of parents is how early you need to start," says Amr Moursi, DDS, PhD, associate professor and chair of New York University's Department of Pediatric Dentistry.
At birth, your child's baby teeth -- 20 in total -- are already formed, hidden within the jawbone. Wiping your baby's gums once or twice a day with a soft cloth will "reduce the bacteria load and intensity [in a child's mouth] so when teeth erupt, there should be less cavity-causing bacteria," Moursi says. It's also a good way to get your baby used to having her mouth worked on.
Dental visits should start early, preferably within six months of the first tooth coming in, and no later than your child's first birthday.
Brushing should start as soon as teeth appear, which can be as early as 4 months. Babies usually get bottom teeth first, then top ones. Don't get too worked up about when baby teeth come in. "The key things to look at are symmetry and pairings," Moursi says. Drooling, irritability, and putting objects into the mouth are sure signs of teething and tender gums.
Sometimes a low fever or loose stools happen, too.
To relieve teething discomfort, remember two words: cold and hard. A frozen banana or a bagel can help reduce the pain. The FDA warns against using topical pain relievers containing benzocaine because of potentially dangerous side effects. Benzocaine can be found in over-the-counter products such as Baby Orajel.
Keep good early dental habits -- and your baby's gummy smile will soon turn into a happy, toothy grin.
Preventing Children's Cavities
Moursi offers these tips to start good habits for a lifetime of healthy teeth.
Don't share. A major source of cavities in children is a type of bacteria transferred between parent and child. Limit cup and utensil sharing, and never lick your baby's pacifier.
Brush up. You can use a portion of fluoride toothpaste as small as a grain of rice when your baby's first tooth appears. Use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste twice a day (after breakfast and again before bedtime) after your child turns 3 years old.
Limit exposure. Frequent eating, even of healthy food, is more damaging to little teeth than sweets. For younger children, aim for eating about five times a day (three meals and two snacks).