Dental care for babies and young children is often overlooked since baby teeth are known to fall out and be replaced by new adult teeth. It is important to care for baby teeth to prevent tooth decay and teach healthy oral care habits to children early on. Once baby teeth start to come in, children are susceptible to tooth decay due to the sugars found in milk, formula, and juice.
Tooth Decay in Babies
Babies are at higher risk of tooth decay if they are put to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, or juice. To monitor for tooth decay, gently check the mouth for dark or white spots or lines on the teeth. Tips for avoiding sugar consumption during bedtime include:
- Giving your baby plain water in the bottle
- Replacing the bottle with a clean soother, soft toy, or blanket
- Comforting your baby and trying again if your baby does not settle quickly without a bottle
- Gradually watering down the bottle until it is only plain water
If you do notice signs of tooth decay it is important to take your child to see the dentist to avoid infection and discomfort. It is also good to get your child used to dental appointments early on. Although baby teeth do eventually fall out, the process occurs over several years. The front teeth start to get wiggly around age five or six, but molars don’t fall out until between ages 9 – 12.
If a cavity in a baby tooth is left untreated for too long it can lead to infection which can damage the surrounding tissue or jaw bone. In some cases, the tooth can be extracted early, but it is generally best for the tooth to be repaired. Baby teeth act as placeholders for where adult teeth will eventually come in. If a baby tooth is removed too early the surrounding teeth can drift and close the space where an adult tooth is meant to erupt.
Dental Care for Baby Teeth
Since babies and young children are not able to clean their own teeth, parents should start early by gently cleaning their baby’s mouth and gums with a soft clean cloth. When teeth start to erupt, a soft children’s toothbrush can be used, usually either with plain water or a small amount of toothpaste without fluoride.
Children between ages 3 – 6 should be supervised or assisted in brushing their teeth. A small pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste can be used, but parents need to monitor to ensure that teeth are brushed thoroughly and that too much toothpaste is not swallowed. Excessive consumption of fluoride can lead to dental fluorosis. Children should use a toothbrush with soft rounded bristles and the toothbrush should be replaced every 3 – 4 months.
It is best if children get in the habit of brushing their teeth before bed as early as possible since sleeping with sugars in the mouth increases the chance of tooth decay. The Canadian Dental Association recommends that a child visit the dentist for the first time within 6 month of the first tooth erupting. Continuing to schedule dental check ups every six months will help establish a good routine and ensure that any issues are identified early.