A Dentist's Tips for Keeping Your Child's Teeth Healthy

Good dental health (also called oral health) is more than just having clean teeth. It refers to the health of your teeth, gums, cheeks, soft tissues, palate, lips, and jaws. Taking good care of our mouths allow us to speak, chew, taste, swallow, and smile confidently and without pain.

Good dental health is also important for our overall health. For instance, gum disease and other types of oral diseases can put a person at a higher risk of developing diabetes. On the other hand, the mouth is also often described as the window to the health of the body because signs of other diseases can show up there. For example, canker sores may indicate certain nutritional deficiencies.

While good dental health is important throughout life, it is particularly important for children as they develop and grow. Having a healthy mouth is essential for a child’s nutrition as they learn to eat and swallow foods of different types and textures. Additionally, a child’s teeth, lips, and tongue play a critical role as they learn to speak and interact with others.

Despite being largely preventable, tooth decay – damage to a tooth’s surface, or enamel – is the most common childhood disease. Almost 1 in 5 children between the ages of 2 and 5 have already experienced tooth decay, which can have a significant impact on the lives of children and their families. For example, at least 51 million hours of school are missed every year in the United States by children that are experiencing tooth decay. This is because decayed teeth can become painful and disrupt the ability to sleep, eat, grow, and perform well in school. When the front teeth are decayed, speech and self-esteem can also be negatively impacted.

Here is what you need to know about how to prevent tooth decay and keep your child’s mouth healthy as they grow.

Dental Health During Pregnancy

It may be surprising, but it is important to think about your baby’s dental health even before they are born. This is because a soon-to-be mom’s dental health is connected to the health of her unborn baby. Given that pregnancy increases the risk of certain dental health problems, it is important for both mom and baby to practice good dental hygiene.

When a baby is born, their mouth is sterile, meaning that there are no bacteria present. But within a few days after birth, the baby will start to pick up bacteria from the saliva of people they are close to, particularly the mother. If the mother practices good dental hygiene and has a healthy mouth, the bacteria transferred to the baby will be healthy bacteria and promote a healthy environment for when the baby’s own teeth come in.

Dental Health for Baby (0-1 Years)

It is never too soon to start caring for your baby’s dental health.

Even before baby teeth start to appear in the mouth, parents should clean their baby’s gums by wiping them with a clean gauze pad or washcloth. Not only will this help keep your baby’s mouth clean and get them used to having their mouth cleaned, but it will also help you notice when their first teeth start to come in around six months of age.

When your baby’s first teeth come in, you should:

  • Brush teeth gently with a child-sized toothbrush twice daily. It is recommended by dentists and pediatricians alike to use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice, until age 3. Fluoride helps to strengthen baby’s teeth and prevent tooth decay. It is safe and effective when used properly and in appropriate doses and has even been added to most community drinking water supplies.
  • Schedule baby’s first dental visit. It is recommended that this first dental visit occur sometime between the arrival of baby’s first tooth and first birthday. This first visit is important to building a relationship with your baby’s dentist so you can receive personalized advice for your child as they grow.
  • Take steps to prevent baby bottle tooth decay. Baby bottle tooth decay happens when a baby’s teeth come into contact with sweet or sugary liquids for long periods of time. Avoid using bottles for anything other than breastmilk, formula, or water. If your baby needs a bottle to fall asleep, it should only contain water and pacifiers should not be dipped in honey or sugar.

Dental Health for Toddlers (1-2 Years)

While baby teeth may be temporary, they are still extremely important because they pave the way for permanent teeth. Children who experience tooth decay in their baby teeth are more likely to experience decay in their permanent teeth. This is because the permanent teeth come into an environment with decay-causing bacteria already present.

To prevent tooth decay and cavities in your toddler’s teeth, you should:

  • Limit sugary foods and drinks. Avoid giving your child juice or sugary drinks. If juices are given, they should be diluted with water, given in a cup, and with meals. Continue only using bottles for breastmilk, formula, or water. Try to make sure your toddler is eating a mix of healthy foods and avoid sharing spoons or other utensils as cavity-causing bacteria can be passed through saliva.
  • Keep brushing teeth twice daily with a tiny smear – about the size of a grain of rice – of fluoride toothpaste until age 3. Tooth brushing should be done in the morning and as part of a bedtime routine. A positive bedtime routine should also include drinking only water after dinner, brushing teeth, a bedtime story, and a regular bedtime.
  • Don’t forget to floss. While brushing teeth helps to remove dental plaque, it can’t remove plaque that cannot be reached by a toothbrush such as in between the teeth. You should start to floss when your child has two teeth that touch, which often occurs around ages 2 to 3. Your child’s dentist or pediatrician can show you how to floss your child’s teeth.
  • Schedule regular dental checkups. It is recommended to schedule regular dentist visits every six months to prevent cavities and other dental problems. However, your child’s dentist can tell you when and how often your child should visit based on their personal dental health.

Dental Health for Young Children (3+ Years)

All of a child’s 20 baby teeth usually come in by a child’s third birthday. The best way to keep your child’s teeth and mouth healthy is by teaching them good dental habits. As they grow to become more independent, this will help your child learn to make dental hygiene a part of their daily routine.

To prevent tooth decay and cavities in your young child’s teeth, you should:

  • Use a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste when brushing teeth twice daily. At age 3, it is recommended by dentists and pediatricians alike to start using a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste to help prevent cavities. Also try to teach your child to spit the toothpaste. If a child cannot spit, have them tilt their mouth down so that the toothpaste can dribble out into the sink, a cup, or washcloth.
  • Teach proper toothbrushing habits. Continue brushing your child’s teeth until you are confident that they can brush their teeth on their own. Then, still supervise to make sure they use the right amount of toothpaste and do not swallow it until they are 6 or 7 years of age. Brushing should take place in the morning and before bed, ideally for two minutes. Always follow up by brushing any places they might have missed.
  • Make toothbrushing fun! Today’s technologies can help parents build tooth brushing habits through song and even connected toothbrushes using virtual reality games. Here are some great tips for making brushing fun for kids.
  • No mouthwash for children under the age of six. Dentists say that children under six should not use mouthwash, unless directed by their dentist. This is because they may swallow large amounts of mouthwash accidentally.

By following these tips, your child will have strong and healthy teeth, setting the foundation for a lifetime of good health as they develop and grow. Happy brushing!

Barbara Shearer, Ph.D.

Barbara Shearer is the Director of Scientific Affairs for Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals based in New York. An important part of this role is creating education programs for Dental Professionals throughout their careers. Barbara is originally from New Zealand where she trained as a Dentist and has a PhD in Oral Pathology. She worked for Colgate in New Zealand and Australia before relocating to New York with her family in 2010. Barbara is passionate about prevention and believes that everyone deserves a future they can smile about.

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