When I meet my youngest patients, and throughout their time under my care, I’m looking out for their physical and mental well-being. Did you know that includes checking on their oral health and wellness? This means I’m checking in their mouths to make sure their gums and tongue are healthy. And when their teeth come in, I’m making sure they appear to be growing in as they should. As my patients get older, I remind them to take care of their teeth daily and regularly see their dentist.
One thing I work with parents on is establishing good oral hygiene habits to prevent early childhood cavities. Good oral health starts early. Close to 20 percent of preschoolers (children ages 4 and 5) have tooth decay, 50 percent of kids develop tooth decay by the third grade, and nearly 75 percent by age 15. My advice is not a substitute for a dentist. I’ll talk about when kids should see the dentist later, but for now let’s look at how I help families establish good oral habits early to make sure they stay healthy and cavity-free.
For at home care, here are a few simple tips and tricks for parents
Wipe gums: Before your baby’s first tooth comes in, cleaning decay-causing bacteria from your baby’s mouth on a daily basis by wiping their gums can act as a safeguard. To clean your baby’s gums, gently wipe them with a clean, damp washcloth or infant toothbrush. If your child is teething, consider refrigerating or freezing the damp washcloth for a few minutes. The cold temperature can soothe your baby’s sore gums.
Brush teeth: As soon as your baby’s first tooth pops through, it’s time to start brushing. A soft toothbrush, wet with water, may be used after your infant has developed some teeth. I recommend brushing after they have eaten in the morning and right before bed. Once you get in the habit of brushing teeth, you can start adding toothpaste. But be sure to only use a small amount — think of a grain of rice — because young children will often swallow the toothpaste, instead of spitting it out.
Drink water: Starting around 6 months, you can give your baby a little water (around 4-8 ounces per day). Water naturally rinses out your baby’s mouth. There is an added bonus too — your family’s tap water likely has fluoride added to it. Fluoride is a natural mineral and helps fight cavities and protects your gums. If your community water does not have fluoride or you get your water from a private well, you should talk to your doctor about a prescription for fluoride drops or chewable tablets.
Ban bottles at bedtime: This one can be tough. I know bottles can be a soothing part of the bedtime routine. Even small amounts of milk or juice before bed have sugars that attack your baby’s teeth overnight and can lead to decay. This can happen with both bottles and sippy cups, so make sure your baby does not fall asleep with milk or juice on their teeth. Limiting juice and sweetened drinks in general can also help prevent cavities. Kids don’t need juice for nutrition, so if you don’t give them juice, that is fine. If you are going to give juice, wait until your child is at least 1 year old. After that, limit juice to a maximum of 4 to 6 ounces per day and look for 100 percent pure juice with no added sugar. It is also better to drink the juice in one sitting (such as with lunch) instead of drinking small amounts throughout the day.
One more note on bottles because they do affect your baby’s oral health. Begin to wean your baby from the bottle as they start to eat more solid foods and drink from a cup. Gradually, begin to offer a cup for water. By 12 to 14 months, most children can drink from a cup. If you promote healthy habits now and limit the frequency and amount of sweetened beverages and foods, you will establish lifelong behavior.
Everyone can get cavities, even babies with tiny teeth can get tooth decay. Be familiar with the normal appearance of your child's gums and teeth. Regularly, lift your child's lips to check for suspicious small white or brown spots on their teeth. These white or brown spots may indicate dental decay (cavities) and you should schedule an appointment with your dentist right away.
Believe it or not, you should schedule an appointment for your child with a dentist within six months of your baby’s first tooth erupting. For most children, this is by age 12-18 months old. Baby teeth are important. Teeth are needed to chew food and form sounds when talking. Baby teeth also save space in the mouth for permanent teeth, making it particularly important to take care of them.
A pediatric dentist will make sure all teeth are developing normally and that there are no dental problems. They will also give you further advice on proper hygiene. Children’s Wisconsin has many child-friendly pediatric dental experts who utilize the most current dental techniques designed specifically for children. Our dental professionals, thoroughly trained in infant, pediatric and adolescent dentistry, make dental visits a non-threatening and rewarding experiences for both you and your child.
As always, your pediatrician is your best source for questions about your child’s health and well-being. We are here for you!