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Teach Your Child to Care for Their Teeth

The sooner children begin receiving dental care, the healthier their teeth will be throughout their lives. By taking your child to dental checkups starting at age 1—or earlier if their teeth have started to come in—and helping them build good oral hygiene habits, you can help them on their way to a lifetime of good dental health.

Studies indicate that young children who do not receive dental checkups are at much higher risk of developing tooth decay, which is the No. 1 dental problem among preschoolers. Some parents assume that dental decay in baby teeth isn’t a concern because they’ll be lost anyway, but that isn’t the case. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says cavities in baby teeth can negatively affect permanent teeth and lead to future dental problems.

Parents and caregivers should be aware that cavity-causing bacteria is transmissible. When parents share a utensil with their child or “clean” a pacifier that has been dropped by placing it in their mouth, they could be transmitting the bacteria. Avoid this practice.

According to AAP, 10 percent of 2-year-olds have had at least one cavity, 28 percent of children by age 3 have had one or more cavities, and almost 50 percent of children by age 5 have had at least one cavity.

To put your child on the right track, here are some suggestions from the AAP, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) and other sources for developing excellent dental hygiene.

Help them brush. A child cannot brush their teeth without help until they’re about 6 to 8 years old. Until then, be sure to supervise or do the actual brushing if necessary. After a tooth comes in, start helping your child brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes each time.

Teach good dental habits. This is the No. 1 way to protect your child’s teeth. By teaching the right brushing techniques and emphasizing everyday care, you can help develop good oral hygiene in your child as part of their daily routine. By showing them correct technique, you’ll help them remove plaque, which is bacteria that can accumulate on teeth and cause tooth decay.

Get the right brush. Children’s brushes are designed to address different needs of children of different ages. Just pick out the age-appropriate soft-bristle brush as your child grows.

Use the right amount of toothpaste. After a tooth comes in, start helping your child brush two times a day with a smear (size of a grain of rice) of fluoride toothpaste for children younger than 3. At age 3, your child can start using a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste. If your child doesn't like the taste of the toothpaste, try another flavor. Try to teach your child not to swallow it, though they may be too young to learn to rinse and spit.

Make sure every tooth is brushed. The direction of the brushing motion—whether it’s up and down, back and forth, or around in circles—doesn’t matter. What’s important is to brush each tooth thoroughly, top and bottom, inside and out. Children tend to focus on what they can see— the front teeth. Playing a game of “hidden teeth” can make it fun to address the other teeth.

Limit sugar. Your child’s diet has a critical role in their dental health—and sugar poses the biggest issue. The more a child’s teeth are exposed to sugar, the greater the chance of cavities. Exposing teeth for extended periods to sugar-containing foods, either through snacking or drinking from a sippy cup, should be avoided. Sticky sugar food items that can stay in a child’s mouth for hours, such as caramel, gum and dried fruit, can be damaging. Make sure to brush your child’s teeth after they chew a sugary item.

Teach flossing. Once a child’s teeth start to fit closely together, usually between the ages of 2 and 6, parents should start to get them in the habit of flossing daily. A simple floss pick can be helpful. As the child’s dexterity develops, the child can be taught to floss their own teeth using a single piece of floss.

Have regular checkups. During regular visits to your pediatrician, your doctor will check your child's teeth and gums to make sure they are healthy. If your pediatrician notices a problem, they may refer you to a pediatric dentist. Both the AAP and the AAPD recommend all children see a pediatric dentist and establish a "dental home” by age 1. Whether you see a pediatric dentist or your regular dentist, your child should have a dental checkup at least once a year. The AAPD advises parents to make two dental appointments per year for children, beginning about six months after the first tooth emerges.

Parents should lift the lip. If parents or caregivers practice this on a regular basis, they can identify changes and things that don’t look right in their child’s mouth, such as white lines below the gum line (see second photo below). They should then bring their findings to the attention of their pediatrician or dentist.

Drink fluoridated tap water. Simple tap water is essential to your child’s health, including their dental health. Tap water has fluoride, which keeps teeth strong and reduces cavities by about 25 percent in children and adults. By preventing cavities, community water fluoridation has been shown to save money for families and the U.S. healthcare system.

Additional Resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) provides guidelines for preventing tooth decay and ensuring good dental health for your child.

The Mayo Clinic offers important information about what to expect during a child’s checkup.

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