Healthy Teeth for Healthy Kids - Tips for Parents & Caregivers

Good oral health is just as important as a healthy heart, lungs or bones. By caring for your child's mouth, gums and teeth starting when your baby is born you can help your child have a beautiful, healthy smile and avoid many serious problems like pain, infection and speaking difficulties, not to mention expensive dental visits.

Why are baby teeth so important?

Many parents wonder why it is necessary to care for the "baby teeth" when "these are going to fall out anyway." Baby teeth are important because they hold the space for permanent teeth. If the baby teeth come into an unhealthy mouth, they will become unhealthy too. Healthy teeth are also important for speech development and nutrition.

The first thing you can do to protect your child's teeth is to set a good example. Everyone knows that children love to imitate grownups and even the littlest ones will want to brush and floss if they see you do it. Secondly, learn what you need to know and do to keep their smiles sparkling. Here are a few helpful tips:

From birth to 1 year old:

  • Breastfeed your baby.
  • Prevent painful baby bottle tooth decay by not letting your baby fall asleep with a bottle in his or her mouth.
  • Wipe or brush your baby's teeth daily, especially after eating, with a clean washcloth or a moist, soft child's toothbrush, without toothpaste.
  • Introduce a cup around 6 months of age.
  • To avoid spreading the germs that can cause cavities, don't put anything in a child's mouth if it has been in your mouth. This includes spoons, cups and toothbrushes. The bacteria in your mouth can cause tooth decay in your child.

From 1 to 2 years old:

  • Stop bottle-feeding at 12 months of age.
  • Schedule a visit to the dentist by your child's first birthday. You want to find a "dental home" for your child and build a relationship with a dentist you trust. Ask friends or your pediatrician to give you the names of dentists who work well with children.
  • Once your baby is eating solid foods, limit the number of sweet and sticky foods that he or she eats. Instead, offer a variety of healthy foods from all of the food groups such as fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
  • Brush gums and teeth with a soft child's toothbrush, using a small pea-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste twice a day, morning and bedtime. Wipe off excess toothpaste until the child can spit it out.
  • Check your baby's teeth and gums for early tooth decay. Look for spots on the teeth, swelling, bleeding or pimples on the gums.

From 2 to 3 years old:

  • When your child is about 2 years old, brush their teeth with a pea size amount of fluoride toothpaste twice a day, especially before bedtime. Spit out excess.
  • Give your child water rather than juice when thirsty. After 6 months of age, one small serving of juice a day is sufficient. It is also recommended that you dilute juice by adding an equal amount of water.
  • Ask your dentist about fluoride supplements if you live in an area where fluoride is not in your drinking water. Fluoride helps make teeth strong and prevents tooth decay.
  • Ask your child's doctor or dentist about putting fluoride varnish on your child's teeth. This is another great way to protect your child's teeth from cavities.

From 3 to 5 years old

  • Help your child brush at least twice a day. Your child will need your help until he or she is about 8 years old.
  • Take your child to the dentist at least once a year.
  • After your child eats sweets, chips, crackers or juice, you should brush their teeth or rinse their teeth with water.

Other Questions You Might Have

Prevention is the best way to protect your child's teeth. A dentist is trained to answer your questions and give you the tools you need to make sure your child's teeth will be healthy. That is why it is so important that you schedule a visit to a dentist by the time your child is 1-year-old.

The following are just some of the common questions that parents have about their young children's oral health.

Q: What causes cavities?

A: A number of bacteria normally live in the mouth. Some of these bacteria are introduced when parents or caregivers share their food or utensils with young children. These bacteria turn the sugars and carbohydrates that we eat into acid. The bacteria and acid mix with food particles and our saliva to form plaque. If plaque is not removed, it can erode the enamel on our teeth and these erosions can get bigger over time. Eventually the acid in the plaque can get to the pulp of the tooth where blood vessels and sensitive nerve fibers are, causing painful infections.

Q: Are there foods that increase my child's chances of getting cavities?

A: Soda, sweet drinks, candy and other sweets can cause cavities that hurt. Foods that can stick to teeth like chips, crackers or cereals can also cause cavities. Try to replace these snacks with healthier alternatives like cheese, yogurt, fruit and vegetables.

Q: If my child has a toothache, does that mean she has a cavity?

A: A cavity is just one reason your child might have a toothache. Other reasons include a crack or fracture in the tooth, an exposed root or an infection in the gum. None of these should be treated at home. Visit your dentist or doctor immediately to find out what is happening.

Q: If my child has a cavity, can he brush more and make it go away?

A: No, cavities don't go away; they only get worse. They are very painful and the infection can affect the gums and permanent teeth as well. If you think that your child has a cavity, see a dentist immediately.

Q: Why not just have the dentist pull out a tooth with a cavity, especially if it's a baby tooth?

A: The empty space that is created when a tooth is removed not only affects how your child looks and how he or she feels about how he or she looks, it also affects his or her future dental health. The teeth around the space will start to move and shift, causing problems later on, and possibly even preventing the permanent tooth from coming in.

Q: Should I give my child fluoride?

A: Fluoride can be given via supplements, toothpaste and fortified drinking water. Ask your doctor or dentist if your child is getting enough fluoride or the best way to get more. For example, a dentist can do much more specific and concentrated treatments like a fluoride varnish, which is painted right on the teeth.

Q: Should babies and children use toothpaste?

A: Most dentists agree that using fluoride toothpaste before age 2 is a good way to protect children's teeth. Just be sure to wipe your child's mouth after brushing to remove any excess toothpaste.