How to care for baby teeth
Your baby’s first tooth will appear anywhere between 4 and 14 months of age. While baby teeth won’t be around forever, it’s still important to look after them and introduce your child to good dental hygiene.
While parents can largely control what their baby and young child eats and drinks, it isn’t just avoiding sugar that makes for good dental hygiene. Baby teeth perform an important function as “place-holders” for adult teeth and are important in learning to eat and chew. Research has shown that poor dental hygiene is linked to other serious health conditions (such as diabetes and coronary artery disease). Also, should your child develop cavities or tooth decay, having dental work done can be painful.
Here are some tips on how to start off on the right foot when those little teeth start poking through.
- Start before the teeth come in
OK, so don’t worry if you are only just reading this and your baby is already cutting his first teeth. However, if you have a newborn, the American Dental Association recommends that you can begin caring for your baby’s mouth a few days after birth “by wiping the gums with a clean, moist gauze pad or washcloth.”
- Don’t transfer your own bacteria to your baby
Try not to lick spoons or pacifiers before you put them in your baby’s mouth because you will pass the bacteria in your mouth to your baby through your saliva. The American Dental Assocation advises that “tooth decay is a disease that can begin with cavity-causing bacteria being passed from the mother (or primary caregiver) to the infant.”
- Don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle
Tooth decay in infants is often called “bottle tooth decay” because it is caused by exposing your baby’s teeth to bottles for extended periods of time. Although milk is a valuable source of calcium and calories for babies, when a baby is put to bed with a bottle of milk, it essentially just washes around the baby’s mouth coating their teeth in sugar. Please note that although breastmilk is great for your baby, it’s really the process of putting your baby to bed with a bottle that causes the issue – breastmilk also contains sugar so sending your baby to bed with a bottle full of expressed milk won’t solve the problem. The solution to this is to give your baby their bottle before you put them to bed, and even give them a little drink of water after they finish before you put them down.
- Don’t put sugar on the pacifier.
It probably goes without saying but don’t put sugary products on your baby’s pacifier. That means sugar, honey or anything sweet.
- Stick to milk and water
The best liquids for baby’s teeth are water, breastmilk and formula. The American Dental Association recommends against putting juice, sugar water or soft drink in bottles. Nutritionally your baby doesn’t need any other liquids and, if getting enough vitamins and minerals into your baby is the issue, juice is not the answer. Juice is essentially the taste and sugar of fruit without any of the goodness you find in real fruit. Sports and energy drinks may sound healthy but they aren’t really, and can be as nutritionally poor as soda.
- Introduce your baby to a toothbrush early…
As soon as that first tooth pokes through (and you are done with the tears, late nights and grizzling that generally accompany teething!) you can start introducing your baby to brushing. The six month mark is, developmentally, a great time for this as babies this age love holding onto things and putting things in their mouth. Buy your baby an infant toothbrush as these are nice and small for little mouths and let her experiment with holding it, sticking it in her mouth and feeling the soft bristles on her gums. Ideally you want your baby to be comfortable with you putting the brush in her mouth and making this part of her routine.
- …But take control of the brushing yourself
The American Dental Association recommends using about a pea-sized dob of toothpaste for an infant. If you are concerned about the ingredients in toothpaste, there are fluoride-free toothpastes on the market as well as many, many different tasting toothpastes. So, if at first your child balks at the taste, try a different one. That said, when it comes to properly brushing their teeth, your child will not be doing the heavy lifting – you need to do that. Until your child is about 3, you will need to brush their teeth for about two minutes twice a day. You can let them have a go first and then do a thorough job yourself, and teach them to spit out the toothpaste (most children embrace this aspect of tooth-brushing!).
- Introduce teeth-friendly dietary habits
As well as sticking to water and milk for drinks, teaching your child to drink from a cup is an important step in looking after their teeth. Usually babies around 1 year old can hold a cup and start to control it well enough to drink by themselves. If you use sippy cups, the Academy of General Dentistry says they should only be used while your child is making the transition between bottles and cups – not as a long term solution. If your child must drink juice then have them drink through a straw so the liquid isn’t coating their teeth.
In terms of diet, poor choices for your child’s teeth include the usual suspects – hard candy, lollipops (anything sticky or chewy or that your child is likely to suck on for a long period of time is particularly bad), but also some foods you might not think are unhealthy, like dried fruit, raisins and bananas. These make the hit-list because they contain a lot of sugar (albeit natural sugar) but also because they are sticky – so likely to get stuck on or between teeth (snacks which are starchy, like potato chips, are also bad for teeth for the same reason). The Partnership for Healthy Mouths Healthy Lives recommends that “a food with sugar is safer for teeth if it is eaten with a meal, not as a snack. Chewing during a meal helps produce saliva which helps wash away sugary and starchy foods”.
Calcium, phosphorus, Vitamin A and Vitamin C are all really important for a healthy mouth (for Tots and grown-ups). The American Dental Association lists cheese, milk, plain yogurt, calcium-fortified tofu, leafy greens and almonds as foods which are great for teeth because they are good sources of calcium. Excellent sources of phosphorus include protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs. Vitamin C is important for healthy gums and Vitamin A will help build your Tot’s tooth enamel. Giving your child supplements is unnecessary however, as a regular child can get all the Vitamin A and C they need from fruits and vegetables!
- Go to the dentist
Take your child to the dentist every six months from the time their teeth start to appear. This is important because it gives the dentist a chance to see how your Tot’s teeth are coming along and if there are any problems, but it’s also important for your Tot too. When you go reasonably frequently to the dentist and it’s no big deal, your Tot will come to see a visit to the dentist as just another thing that we do in life to care for our bodies – not as an excursion to become anxious or fearful about. Some family dentists are happy to see children, or else ask your dentist to recommend a dentist specializing in pediatric dentistry.