How Do I Take Care of My Child’s Teeth? Here’s an Age by Age Breakdown

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the new baby thing, something changes, right? Sleep regression, growth spurt, time to introduce solid food, and um, is that a tooth? As your little one grows, parenting becomes more and more complicated, it seems. And most of us, who haven’t gone to school and studied babies, can sometimes feel a little at a loss of what to do. Like, when that tooth does come in, what exactly are you supposed to do with it?

Dr. Google often has answers, but not always the right ones. We talked to Dr. Janet Bozzone, DMD, MPH, FAGD, who leads the oral health care program and service delivery at Open Door Family Medical Centers, a pioneering, federally-qualified family health center system in the Metro-New York area that provides cost-effective health care for communities in need. She gave us the scoop on how to take care of your kids’ teeth at every age, including what’s happening in that phase of dental development, what to look for, and how to help.

 

If your baby is an infant…

 

How to Brush Their Teeth

 

“Newborns can generally have most of their oral health needs met by wiping and massaging the teeth and gums with a clean washcloth, gauze, or baby brush,” Dr. Bozzone notes. There are also cute and useful products available to assist in cleaning the baby’s mouth, like Dr. Brown’s Tooth and Gum Wipes.

 

The most important thing to remember at this age, Dr. Bozzone tells us, is to not allow the baby to sleep with a bottle. If parents put the baby to bed with a bottle, it will increase the likelihood of developing early childhood cavities.

 

As your little one starts to cut teeth, it’s important to remember that baby teeth are just as important to care for as adult teeth, says Dr. Bozzone. Oral health is linked to overall wellness, so even if these teeth will eventually fall out, caring for them is still critical.

 

What Else You Need to Know

 

One of the most important roles for baby teeth is in nutrition. They enable your child to eat and chew properly, ensuring they receive the nutrition that allows proper growth and development. Baby teeth assist in the formation of the child’s mouth and jaw. “They act as important “placeholders” for the permanent teeth to follow, permitting these teeth to grow in correctly,” Dr. Bozzone explains.

The American Dental Association (ADA) notes that when a baby tooth is lost too early, the permanent teeth can shift towards the empty space, blocking other permanent teeth and potentially creating crooked or crowded conditions (read: pricey orthodontics for you later on!).

So when is it time for that first visit to the dentist? The ADA recommends that a child’s first dental visit should take place after their first tooth appears, but no later than the first birthday. This is important because as soon as a baby has teeth, there is the potential for cavities.

 

If your baby is a toddler…

 

How to Brush Their Teeth

 

By now, you can start brushing your child’s teeth with a small, soft, toddler toothbrush.  “Brushing with a small dollop of fluoridated toddler toothpaste (about the size of your child’s pinky nail) is recommended,” Dr. Bozzone notes.

“And,” she adds, “there is no need to try to get the child to rinse – the child can simply spit and you can wipe away any excess.”

 

What Else You Need to Know

 

In addition, try to limit milk and/or formula to what a child can consume in about 20 minutes, instead of letting them hang out all day with a sippy cup. And, encourage water afterward. This will minimize any sugary coating left on their teeth.

 

If your child is in preschool…

 

How to Brush Their Teeth

 

“Preschoolers will often want to try to brush their own teeth,” Dr. Bozzone tells us, “but they lack the dexterity to do it properly.”

 

We certainly want to encourage them to take an interest in dental hygiene, but you need to make sure a parent/caregiver is brushing for them first, then allow the child to brush on their own (or vice versa).

 

What Else You Need to Know

 

Two minutes of brushing twice a day is recommended, but at minimum, brush before bedtime with no snacking or milk afterward.

 

If your child is in elementary school…

 

How to Brush Their Teeth

 

“We used to say that children could brush their own teeth once they were able to tie their own shoelaces,” notes Dr. Bozzone, “but with the advent of Velcro and elastic laces, it’s a milestone that is often missed!” At this age, parents will still need to supervise and determine if their children are brushing thoroughly. Two minutes, twice a day is the rule, with that same pinky-sized amount of toothpaste. “I often tell my young patients not to rinse,” says Dr. Bozzone, “that residual fluoride that remains helps to fight cavities even more.”

A fun toothbrush timer can keep things interesting for this age group and make them aware of how long two minutes actually is.

 

If your child is in middle school…

 

How to Brush Their Teeth

 

Older kids need that same two minutes, twice a day rule (so do adults!). “The need for supervision should be less necessary,” says Dr. Bozzone, “but it is often good to reinforce and spot check.”

 

A dry toothbrush is a dead giveaway that the tooth brushing portion of your kid’s bathroom routine was skipped.

 

Battery powered character toothbrushes can sometimes make brushing time more enjoyable if your child is into something particular.

 

Now, what about sugar?

Brushing and fluoride can’t take care of your teeth on their own! “For all age groups, the frequency of carbohydrate intake is also critically important,” Dr. Bozzone tells us. It is not just candy or sugar that causes tooth decay. “Every time a child has a snack with a carbohydrate,” Dr. Bozzone says, “acid is produced by the bacteria in the mouth.” That acid is what causes tooth decay.

Parents should encourage healthy snacking and limit grazing and sugary beverages including fruit juices, athletic drinks, and soda as a holistic approach to dental and health care. Most pediatricians recommend that six ounces of orange juice is sufficient for a serving, and whole fruits are preferred over juice in general.

Dr. Bozzone encourages parents to visit the ADA website, which has a wealth of oral health care information at Mouth Healthy.

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