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From birth through the teens, you need to heed your child's evolving dental needs. The example you set-regular checkups, brushing, flossing, and a healthy diet-will help set up your child for a lifetime of good dental health.
Here's an age-by-age primer from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD):
The AAPD encourages parents to take their child to a dentist by their first birthday. Take your baby to see a dentist shortly after the first tooth comes in. That's usually between 6 months and 1 year of age. Then go yearly until your child turns 3. At that point, your dentist will probably want to see your child twice a year.
Before teeth erupt: Clean your baby's mouth and gums with a soft cloth or infant toothbrush at bath time and after each feeding.
After teeth erupt: Clean them at least twice a day with a toothbrush designed for small children.
Sleeping with a bottle: If you put your child to sleep with a bottle, use nothing but water. When a child is frequently breast-fed, or given a bottle containing sugary liquids such as milk, formula, or fruit juice, the teeth are under attack by bacterial acid for extended periods.
Pacifiers vs. thumbs: To comfort newborns, the AAPD prefers pacifiers rather than thumbs. The pacifier habit is easier to break at an earlier age. That lessens the chances of developing crowded, crooked teeth or bite problems. Never dip a pacifier in anything sweet.
Bottles: Wean your infant from bottles by the first birthday-and don't add any sweetener to the baby's bottle.
Fluoride supplements: Your dentist will determine whether your child needs them.
Brushing: After breakfast and before bed, parents should brush preschoolers' teeth and supervise brushing for school-age children until age 7 or 8. Toddlers should be encouraged to help brush as soon as they can hold a toothbrush designed for children.
Flossing: Begin flossing when all the baby teeth have erupted, usually by age 2.
Toothpaste: Children 3 years and younger are most susceptible to tooth enamel defects caused by swallowing fluoride toothpaste. Either use no toothpaste or put just a pea-sized dab of toothpaste on the brush. Encourage your child to spit out the toothpaste afterward.
Dental visit: Try to make it a positive experience, not a scary thing. Explain to your child that the dentist will help keep his or her smile bright and healthy.
Brushing: Continue supervising until at least age 7 or 8.
Flossing: Encourage your child to floss daily. Supervise until age 10.
Regular dental visits: Teeth cleanings remove plaque, a naturally occurring, invisible film of sticky bacteria that irritates the gums and causes decay.
Fluoride: If your child doesn't have access to fluoridated water, talk with your dentist about other sources. These include fluoride supplements, treatments, toothpastes, and mouth rinses.
Sealants: Four out of five cavities in children younger than 12 years old occur on the chewing surfaces of back teeth. Sealants can reduce the risk of decay and tooth restorations for several years.
Snacking: Limit snacks to three or four a day-less if possible. Substitute fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, popcorn, and yogurt for high-fat, high-sugar snacks.
Mouth guards: Insist your child wear one during activities with a risk of falls or head contact with other players or equipment.
Be watchful of your teens' snacking habits. The tooth decay rate and risk of gum disease-which affects 60 percent of teens-goes up during the teenage years, partly because of teens' tendency to snack on sugary, starchy foods.
Daily care: Brush after breakfast and before bed with fluoride toothpaste. Floss daily. Watch to make sure teens don't slack off.
Dental visits: Twice a year, unless your dentist wants to apply fluoride treatments more often.
Diet: The average teen eats nine times a day, so snacking on healthy foods is essential.
Mouth guards: Continue to insist on one as noted above.
Mouth piercings: Avoid piercings of the tongue, lip, and cheek. They increase the risk of infection, cracked or chipped teeth, soft tissue damage, and choking if jewelry becomes unfastened.
"Fast Facts." American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, 2008. http://www.aapd.org/assets/1/7/FastFacts.pdf. Accessed 2013.
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