700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Dental Care for Infants and Toddlers: Nurturing Smiles

Feb 08, 2024
young child with a toothbrush in his mouth

Baby teeth are more than just placeholders for future permanent teeth; they play a vital role in your child’s development. Beyond aiding in speech, proper chewing, and eating, these tiny teeth contribute to the shaping of your child’s face and maintain spaces in the jaw to ensure that adult teeth can appear.

Typically, the first tooth makes its appearance by around 6 months, marking the beginning of your child's dental journey. Front teeth usually start falling out around 6 to 7 years, while back teeth, essential for chewing, remain until 10 to 12 years old. Cultivating good oral hygiene habits from an early age sets the foundation for a lifetime of healthy smiles and helps to prevent tooth decay and related complications.

How to Clean Your Child's Mouth

Initiating oral care early is key. By age 2, children can start to learn to brush their own teeth, with the goal of achieving independence by age 10.

  1. Before teeth appear Use a clean gauze pad or soft cloth over your finger, dampened but not soaking wet, to gently wipe your child's gums.
  2. After teeth appear: Transition to a small, soft toothbrush. Place the bristles of the toothbrush at an angle along the row of teeth and against the gum line. Gently brush in circular motions along the gum line and all sides of the teeth. Finish by brushing the tongue.
  3. Fluoride toothpaste: Begin using fluoride toothpaste as soon as the first tooth appears. For children under 3, use a rice-sized amount; for those 3 and older, a pea-size amount is sufficient. They can try to spit out the toothpaste, but it is safe to swallow in small amounts.

The Threat of Tooth Decay

Neglecting oral hygiene increases the risk of tooth decay, commonly known as cavities. The formation of plaque, a bacterial film on the teeth, combines with sugars from food, drinks, or medicine, producing an acid that quickens the development of cavities. Due to thinner enamel (the outer shell of the tooth), cavities develop at a faster rate in baby teeth compared to adult teeth.

The consequences of untreated cavities include potential harm to permanent teeth that have not come in yet, pain, infections that can impact the entire body, costly dental or emergency care, and missed daycare or school days.

Preventing Tooth Decay and Promoting Oral Health

In addition to regular brushing at home, consider the following tips to maintain your child's oral health:

  • Bottle feedings: Use a bottle at feeding time only, avoiding it as a pacifier or bedtime companion.
  • Avoid night feedings: Once the first tooth appears, discourage night feedings and frequent, on demand feedings.
  • Transition to a cup: Wean your baby from a bottle to a cup by 12 months, allowing them to sip only water throughout the day after turning one.
  • Mindful diet: Offer a balanced diet, limiting sugary drinks and starchy snacks that can stick to teeth.
  • Fluoride treatment: Consult with your dentist about applying a fluoride coat to strengthen and protect your child's teeth.

Teething, Thumb-sucking and Pacifiers:

Addressing teething discomfort and understanding habits like thumb-sucking and pacifier use is crucial to oral health. Sometimes gently rubbing your child’s gums with a clean finger or giving them a clean, cold object to chew on, like a teething ring, can help them feel better during teething. Your child may drool more, be fussy, and have a low fever for one to two days while teething.

While usually harmless, thumb-sucking and pacifier use after age three may impact the development of permanent teeth.

If you have questions, ask your child’s dentist, dental hygienist, or health care provider.

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Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Kim Hammersmith, DDS, MPH, MS

Kim Hammersmith DDS, MPH, MS is a part of the Dentistry physician team at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.