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Protect Your Child’s Teeth

The smile on your child’s face is priceless. There’s a lot you can—and should—do to help keep it that way. In fact, maintaining your child’s teeth, gums, and mouth is a key to his or her overall health.

Fortunately, caring for your child’s oral health is not difficult when you arm yourself with some vital dental information. Here are five steps you can take to help your child achieve and maintain good oral health.

Teach Your Child Good Habits

Parents should focus on children’s drinking, eating, and tooth-cleaning habits at a very early age.1,2,4

For example, experts say parents should never give babies, particularly those who have teeth, bottles with milk, juice, or especially sugar syrups of any kind at nap time or bedtime.1,5 In older kids, parents should try to limit sugary, sticky snacks between meals and encourage kids to choose fruits, vegetables, and other healthy alternatives.1,4

Tooth-cleaning habits should start even before children’s first teeth come in. The American Dental Association recommends that parents clean babies’ gums with gauze after feedings and before bed. Once kids’ teeth start coming in, parents should brush them with a soft toothbrush after meals and before bed.1,4,5 Parents should clean and massage gums in areas that remain toothless, and begin flossing when all the baby teeth have erupted, usually by age 2 or 2 1/2. Until children are age 2, parents should use just water and a toothbrush when brushing their children’s teeth.4

As children get older, parents can teach them how to brush and floss their own teeth. Kids ages 2 and older can use a small, pea-sized amount of toothpaste containing fluoride.1,4

Put an End to Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking and using pacifiers can cause problems with teeth alignment and the growth of the mouth.   Most kids stop sucking their thumbs between ages 2 and 4, but parents should discourage children who haven’t stopped by age 4. Instead of scolding children for sucking their thumbs, parents should praise them when they don’t do so. The dentist can also explain to children what might happen to their teeth if they don’t stop thumb sucking.6

Be Ready When Teeth Come In

Baby teeth usually start coming in between ages 6 months and 1 year. They are important to take care of because they hold space for children’s permanent teeth. 7 These teeth generally start coming in between ages 6 and 7.8

Start Dental Visits Early

Children should see a dentist within six months after their first tooth comes in or by age 1.7 They should have regular dental checkups.3

Dentists’ offices provide a full range of services to promote good oral health even at early ages. For example, dental specialists can:

  • Clean teeth3

  • Remove plaque3,8

  • Examine the teeth, mouth, and jaw3

  • Apply, repair, or replace dental sealants—thin coats of plastic painted on the back teeth to prevent tooth decay3,8

  • Evaluate children’s fluoride needs3

  • Perform a dental risk assessment by evaluating children’s diet, hygiene habits, and overall structure of the teeth3

Beware of Tooth Decay

Despite all the advances in dental care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that tooth decay is on the rise among preschoolers.2,9 Tooth decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth interacting with sugar. When we eat sugary foods and simple carbohydrates, such as those found in candy and many processed foods, we are giving the bacteria the fuel they need to secrete acids that can dissolve tooth enamel and cause cavities.5,10 The good news is that dentists can often help reverse the beginning stages of tooth decay with early intervention, education, and prevention strategies.10

Taking charge of your child’s oral health in the early years is worth the effort. There is a good chance he or she will continue using the healthy habits you instill. Those habits increase the chance that your child will have a healthy mouth, gums, and teeth—and a smile that will last a lifetime.

1 “Dental Hygiene: How to Care for Your Child’s Teeth.” American Academy of Family Physicians, June 2007. Accessed 2010.

2 “Oral Health: Preventing Cavities, Gum Disease, Tooth Loss and Oral Cancer, At a Glance 2010.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 19, 2008. Accessed 2010.

3 “Regular Dental Visits.”American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Accessed 2010.

4 “Parents.” American Dental Association. Accessed 2010.

5 “Baby Bottle Tooth Decay (Early Childhood Tooth Decay): Frequently Asked Questions.” American Dental Association. Accessed 2010.

6 “Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Use.” American Dental Association. Journal of the American Dental Association. August 2007, vol. 138, p. 1176. Accessed 2010.

7 “Baby Teeth.” American Dental Association. Accessed 2010.

8 “Tooth Eruption: The Permanent Teeth.” American Dental Association. Journal of the American Dental Association. January 2006, vol. 137, p. 127.

9 “Trends in Oral Health Status: United States, 1988-1994 and 1999-2004.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 2007. Accessed 2010.

10 “Tooth Decay (Cavities/Caries): Frequently Asked Questions.” American Dental Association. Accessed 2010.

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