Caring For Your Child’s Teeth: 10 Common Questions Answered

Wondering how best to care for your child’s teeth? Take a primer in the care of those tiny chompers.

Your baby’s teeth play an important role in how your child eats and how her jaw and face grow, and will eventually influence how she speaks. Most importantly, these little teeth pave the way for adult teeth, acting not just as space savers, but also maintaining optimal gum health in preparation for the teeth she’ll have for the rest of her life.

What’s the best way to protect your little one’s teeth? We’ve collected 10 common questions and answers about baby teeth to help you get started.

1. What can you expect at the first pediatric dental appointment?

According to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), the dentist will sit knee-to-knee with the parent, the child in the parent’s lap, and either watch how the parent brushes the child’s teeth or see how older children brush by themselves. The dentist will also look at the child’s teeth and gums during the visit. “This pleasant, painless visit should take no more than 15 minutes,” says Dr. Cynthia E. Sherwood, DDS, and spokesperson for AGD.

The dentist may also do the following on the first visit, according to the AGD:

  • Gently examine the jaw, bite, gums, and oral tissues
  • Gently clean the teeth—polishing, and removing plaque, tartar build-up, and stains
  • Demonstrate proper home cleaning
  • Assess whether fluoride is needed

2. How can you get a good start in oral health for your children?

Your attitude toward your child’s baby teeth is an important beginning. The AGD says don’t think baby teeth don’t matter “because they just fall out anyway,” and don’t allow children to have continual access to a bottle or sippy cup filled with anything other than water.

3. What is baby tooth decay?

Frequent and long-term exposure of a child’s teeth to sugary liquids is how the AGD describes baby tooth decay, also commonly called baby bottle tooth decay. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), numerous liquids can cause tooth decay if a child is allowed to hold a bottle, cup, or box of juice in his mouth throughout the day. The AAP emphasizes that it’s not just what’s in your child’s bottle or cup, but how often and for how long your little one is drinking the liquid.

4. What liquids cause baby tooth decay?

Milk, formula, fruit juice, soda, and other sweetened drinks can cause decay. According to the AGD, “Sugars in these liquids pool around the infant’s teeth and gums, feeding the bacteria that cause plaque. Every time a child consumes a sugary liquid, acid attacks the teeth and gums. After numerous attacks, tooth decay can begin.”

5. Can breastfed babies get tooth decay as well?

Yes, according to the AGD. “Breastfed infants who have prolonged feeding habits or children whose pacifiers are frequently dipped in honey, sugar, or syrup [may be at risk]. The sweet fluids left in the mouth increase the chances of cavities while the infant is sleeping.”

6. What are the best liquids for children to drink to prevent tooth decay?

“Unsweetened fruit juices and water are always the best for children to help promote oral and overall health,” explains Dr. Sherwood.

7. Why is it important to fix decayed baby teeth?

“It’s important to fix decayed baby teeth so the surrounding teeth don’t become infected. Cavities that are not fixed can lead to painful abscesses and early tooth loss, as well as the loss of spacing needed to be reserved for the incoming permanent teeth,” says AGD spokesperson Dr. Cindy Bauer, DDS, MAGD. Children can also develop poor eating habits, speech problems, crooked teeth, and damaged adult teeth.

8. How can parents decrease the risk of early-childhood tooth decay?

The AGD offers these suggestions:

  • Wean a child from bottle to a cup by age one.
  • Never allow a baby to fall asleep with a bottle containing anything but water.
  • Bring a child to the dentist between six and 12 months.
  • Use spill-proof cups as a transitional step, not a long-term solution.
  • Only allow a child continual access to spill-proof cups throughout the day if they contain water—save juice and milk for snack and mealtimes when increased saliva activity helps to clean teeth.
  • Drink sugary beverages through a straw; the best spill-proof cups are those that have collapsible rubber straws.
  • When your child is around age one, gradually dilute bottle contents with water over a period of two to three weeks—then fill bottles with only water or give a clean pacifier recommended by dentist. Water is the only safe liquid to prevent baby bottle tooth decay.

9. How should I clean baby teeth?

Wipe the baby’s gums with a clean gauze square after each feeding, says the AAP, and begin brushing your baby’s teeth as soon as they erupt, continuing to clean and massage baby’s gums. Once your child reaches age two, the AGD recommends parents use a soft toothbrush and a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste when brushing a child’s teeth (only under the supervision of a parent).

10. What should we do if our baby bites?

In her book Teeth Are Not for Biting, Elizabeth Verdick teaches kids that biting isn’t OK; it hurts! Verdick gives reasons why children might want to bite—such as when teeth are coming in—and then suggests positive things kids can do to make themselves feel better. Verdick also offers these tips for teething:

  • Cuddle your child more often. Hugs and kisses help!
  • Offer cold water or teething rings that have been chilled in the refrigerator.
  • Rub your child’s gums with a clean finger.
  • Give your child teething biscuits every so often. (Watch to make sure your child chews safely, though.)
  • Talk to your child’s doctor to see if pain medications are a safe, effective option.

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