Caring for Your Child's Teeth

Childhood dental health begins before birth and good dental hygiene for children begins even before the first tooth appears. That is because newborn babies have 20 primary teeth in the jaw, some of them fully developed. Healthy teeth are important for children to chew food easily, learn to speak clearly, and have a happy, confident smile.

Boy Brushing Teeth - Masterfile Image

Regular dental care can ensure that your baby's teeth and gums stay free of the bacteria that cause decay. Caring for your infant's mouth is simple: Run a damp washcloth over your baby's gums after every feeding. Once teeth begin to emerge, use a soft child's toothbrush or rub them with a piece of gauze at the end of each day. Toothpaste is not necessary. If you use toothpaste, a pea-sized amount is plenty. Do not use toothpaste containing fluoride until the child is about 3 years of age.

Childhood cavities (or caries), also known as bottle mouth, baby bottle tooth decay, and nursing caries, are a common problem in babies and young children. This type of tooth decay often results from allowing the child to go to bed with a juice- or milk-filled bottle, from using a bottle frequently throughout the day, or from on-demand nursing, especially at night.

The sugars in breast milk, cow's milk, and juice can remain on the teeth and gums, encouraging bacteria growth and causing decay. To help prevent this type of tooth decay, begin to reduce nighttime nursing once the child's first teeth have appeared and if your child must go to bed with a bottle at night, be sure it's filled with plain water. Dentists recommend that children begin drinking from a cup around the first birthday.

As your child gets older, teach proper brushing and flossing techniques and make sure that he or she brushes at least twice a day, after breakfast and before bedtime. Brushing and flossing correctly is the best way to remove dental plaque, which is a sticky substance that is made up of bacteria and other microorganisms. Plaque can build up on the surface of the teeth and the gum line and cause dental cavities and periodontal disease (also called gum disease; e.g., gingivitis). Until about 7 years of age, parents should "go over" their child's teeth with a toothbrush and dental floss.

Children should use a child-sized, soft-bristled toothbrush that is approved by the American Dental Association and should use toothpaste that contains fluoride (over the age of 3). Children should be instructed to brush for at least 2 minutes and should be taught to brush gently, brush each surface of every tooth, and begin each brush stroke at the gum line.

To floss correctly, use about 18 inches of dental floss, hold the floss tightly between the thumbs and fingers, and guide it gently between the teeth, using a rubbing motion. When the floss reached the gum line, gently rub it against the surface of one tooth and then the other, until all of the teeth are flossed. Contact your child's dentist if you have additional questions about brushing and flossing.

Once the permanent teeth have come in, the child should be extra diligent in practicing good dental habits. Parents and caregivers should limit sweet and sticky foods and between-meal snacks and should make sure that children eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, wear a seat belt in the car to prevent impact injuries, wear a mouth guard while engaging in sports, and maintain daily brushing and flossing. Older children and adolescents should avoid tobacco products, which can have a negative affect on dental health.

To learn more about pediatric dental disease, childhood tooth decay and dental health, visit the National Children's Oral Health Foundation website for information about their America's Tooth Fairy® program promoting a healthy smile for every child.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015