New parents may find themselves facing many unknowns when it comes to taking care of their young children’s dental health needs. When to start brushing? Flossing? How do you keep a baby’s mouth clean before their first teeth come in? What are the recommended utensils, supplies and techniques? This article should help you get a handle on the basics for each age group through adulthood. As always, you should contact your friendly local pediatric dentist for the information most pertinent to your individual child.
During Pregnancy (Prenatal Care)
To give your baby the best possible advantage in the development of teeth, which start forming in the second trimester of pregnancy, make sure any prenatal supplements you take include plenty of vitamins A, C and D, calcium, phosphorous and folic acid. And stay on top of your own dental health, too, as pregnancy can put you at greater risk of tooth decay and gum disease. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss at least once daily and drink fluoridated water to help keep your defenses up.
First Six Months
Until your baby’s primary teeth start to come in, there is little you can do to foster good oral care other than cleaning the baby’s gums regularly. A soft, moist washcloth or clean disposable gauze will do fine. The discomfort of teething, which accompanies the eruption of teeth, can be tempered with the use of a teething ring or cold, damp washcloth to chew on. Do not put the baby to bed with a bottle, as this may exacerbate the conditions that lead to tooth decay. Do be on the lookout for anything unusual in the mouth, and report anything suspicious to your pediatric dentist.
Six Months to Two Years
Once the first teeth start showing, begin using a very soft -bristled brush in addition to wiping down the gums. Start with no toothpaste, then, as more teeth come in, begin using a fluoride-free variety — a tiny smidge the size of a grain of rice will suffice. By your child’s first birthday, you should have scheduled his or her first appointment at your pediatric dentistry clinic.
Age Two to Five
By age two, your child should be about ready to switch to a fluoride toothpaste; it is important to wait until they are roughly this age, because the active ingredient in this product should be spit out, rather than swallowed. You can use a bit more now, too — bump up the quantity from rice- to pea-sized. Dental self-care is more fun for young children if they are allowed to pick their own toothbrushes and flavors of toothpaste. Set a timer for two minutes and make sure they learn to brush the tops, bottoms, insides and outsides of all their teeth.
Your child should have all 20 of their primary teeth by about age three, and as they grow in and fit closer together, it will be necessary to start flossing between them. You can use traditional floss or try any of the individual floss picks on the market, which you may find much easier when trying to get into the nooks and crannies of a small mouth.
While it is normal for babies and toddlers to suck on pacifiers and thumbs, this behavior should be discouraged if it continues beyond about age three, as it may contribute to tooth decay. Contact your pediatric dentist for a consultation if your child refuses to stop. By this age your child should be seeing a dentist regularly, ideally every six months, for checkups.
Age Five to Twelve
A five-year-old child should be able to brush and floss their own teeth. Parents should monitor their children to make sure they know how — and that they actually do it — every day. At age six or seven, the first of the baby teeth will start shedding as the larger adult teeth prepare to emerge from the gums. Keep empty sockets clean by gently brushing as the new teeth come in, and consider using an oral hygiene rinse to maximize cleanliness in the mouth.
Your dentist may recommend regular fluoride treatments, which can be administered in during regular office visits, especially in areas without fluoridated tap water.
If your child is active in sports, you may consider the need for a mouthguard, which can protect against teeth being broken or knocked loose during vigorous physical activities.
As all 32 adult teeth come in, it is imperative to maintain your child’s regularly scheduled dental appointments. Teeth migrate as they erupt into the mouth, and this movement will be charted and can be preemptively corrected if necessary to avoid more painful and expensive orthodonture in the future. Daily tooth brushing and flossing is of course still important, as well.
It is not unusual for teens to exhibit rebellious behavior, and parents should do their best to be open and frank with them about their habits. Cigarette smoking, vaping and chewing smokeless tobacco all pose risks to oral health and should be strongly discouraged. Piercing the tongue or other areas of the mouth comes with many potential risks, including ongoing tissue inflammation and pain, nerve damage that may include permanent loss of sensation, allergic reaction, excessive salivation (drooling) and more.
As always, it is imperative that your children a pediatric dentist on a regular basis through adulthood in order to give them the best chance of a healthy smile for the rest of their lives.