Baby teeth may be small, but they’re important. They act as placeholders for adult teeth. Without a healthy set of baby teeth, your child will have trouble chewing and speaking clearly. That’s why caring for baby teeth and keeping them decay-free is so important.
Caring for Baby’s Gums
You can start caring for baby’s gums right away. But at first, the care won’t involve a toothbrush and toothpaste. Instead, take these steps:
- Get a soft, moistened washcloth or piece of gauze.
- Gently wipe down your baby’s gums at least twice a day.
- Especially wipe your baby’s gums after feedings and before bedtime.
This will wash off bacteria and prevent them from clinging to gums. Bacteria can leave behind a sticky plaque that damages infant teeth as they come in.
Brushing Baby’s Teeth
When the first baby teeth start to pop up, you can graduate to a toothbrush. Choose one with a:
- soft brush
- small head
- large handle
At first, just wet the toothbrush. As soon as teeth erupt, you can start using a bit about the size of a grain of rice. You can increase this to a peas sized amount of fluoride toothpaste when your child is 3 years old. Brush gently all around your child’s baby teeth – front and back.
You should brush your baby’s teeth until he or she is old enough to hold the brush. Continue to supervise the process until your child can rinse and spit without assistance. That usually happens at around age 6.
Keep on the lookout for any signs of baby tooth decay – brown or white spots or pits on the teeth. If you or your pediatrician notices any problems, take your child to a pediatric dentist for an exam.
Even if there isn’t a problem, your child should go for his or her first dentist visit by age 1. The dentist can give you advice about:
- baby tooth care
- thumb sucking
It can take two years before all of the infant teeth have made their way through your baby’s gums. The process as each tooth emerges is called “teething.” It can be a trying time for you and your baby.
Teething is uncomfortable. That’s why your baby cries and fusses in the days or weeks before each baby tooth pops up. Babies can display other teething symptoms, too, including:
- swollen gums
- slightly higher than normal temperature
Here are a few tips to relieve your baby’s teething pain:
Teething rings. Let your baby chew on a clean, cool teething ring or cold washcloth. Just avoid giving your child anything that is small enough to choke on. Also avoid a teething ring with liquid inside that could break open.
Gum rubbing. Rub your baby’s gums with a clean finger.
Pain relief. Topical pain relievers are rubbed on the gums. Those that contain benzocaine should not be used for teething. The FDA warns that such products can cause dangerous, potentially life-threatening side effects. Give your baby Tylenol (acetaminophen) occasionally to relieve pain — but ask your pediatrician first. Never give your child aspirin. It has been linked with a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome in children.
If your baby is unusually irritable or inconsolable, call your pediatrician.
About Brushing Baby’s Teeth
As your child’s teeth start to appear (generally around 6 months), you’ll need to start brushing them. (If your child is healthy and still hasn’t gotten her first tooth by the end of her first year, don’t worry – some children don’t start getting teeth until 15 to 18 months.)
- Brush twice a day. Brush in the morning and right before bedtime. Use a baby toothbrush with a small head and grip suitable for your hand.
- Use a tiny amount of fluoride toothpaste. To avoid giving your child too much fluoride, use a thin smear of toothpaste or a dot the size of a grain of rice. (It’s fine to use any fluoridated toothpaste. Note that many toothpastes marketed for babies don’t contain fluoride.)
- Brush gently on the inside and outside of each of your baby’s teeth, as well as her tongue (if she’ll let you), to dislodge bacteria that can cause bad breath. Since you’re using such a small amount of toothpaste, there’s no need to rinse.
- Replace the toothbrush as soon as the bristles start to look worn or splayed.
For now, your baby’s teeth are probably far enough apart that you don’t have to worry about flossing. In fact, there’s no evidence that flossing baby teeth makes a difference. Most dentists recommend starting to floss when tooth surfaces touch and you can’t clean them with a toothbrush.
When should I start brushing my baby teeth?
Tooth brushing can begin as soon as baby’s first tooth pokes through the gums. Use a clean, damp washcloth, a gauze pad, or a finger brush to gently wipe clean the first teeth and the front of the tongue, after meals and at bedtime. Toothbrushes — moistened with water and no more than a rice-grain size smear of fluoride toothpaste — can also be used, but they should be very soft and with no more than three rows of bristles (a pediatric dentist or your pharmacist can help you find the finger brushes and a proper baby toothbrush). Toss any toothbrushes that have become rough at the edges (or that are more than two to four months old, because nasty mouth bacteria can begin to build up).
When should I start taking my baby to the dentist?
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommend that you take your child to the dentist within six months after her first tooth erupts, or by her first birthday, whichever comes first.
In the meantime, at every well-baby visit, your baby’s primary healthcare provider should take a look at your baby’s teeth (if she has any) and apply fluoride varnish every three to six months, depending on your baby’s risk of cavities. Risk factors include a family history of cavities and poor dental health in the mother during pregnancy.
When you do take your child to the dentist, be sure to communicate what fluoride treatments your baby has already received at the doctor’s office.
If you can’t afford dental care for your baby, consider getting in touch with your local health department to ask about resources.
Do certain foods cause tooth decay in babies?
Certain foods can contribute to cavities. Sweet foods like these are a common culprit:
- dried fruit
- peanut butter and jelly
Starches can also contribute to cavities:
Serve these foods at mealtime rather than as snacks so they’re more likely to get dislodged and won’t sit on the teeth too long. Serving them with water is also helpful.
Don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, juice, or sweetened liquid. These liquids feed bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay.