What Every Parent Needs to Know About Baby Teeth
Seeing baby teeth first appear is an exciting time in a child’s early years. Your child’s first teeth give them new ways to eat, speak, and smile. This milestone is also a time to begin thinking about how to care for your child’s teeth.
Believe it or not, tooth decay can begin as soon as your baby’s teeth first appear. This is why it is so important to start your child out with good oral hygiene habits that benefit them for a lifetime.
We all want good health, happiness and a lifetime of smiles for our children. Here are some important facts and tips to keep baby teeth healthy and prevent harmful dental problems for years to come.
Good dental health starts with baby teeth
Although they are replaced by adult teeth, baby teeth are a critical component of every child’s development. They help your child chew, speak, smile, and they hold space for the adult teeth.
Quick facts about baby teeth:
- Babies aren’t actually born without teeth; in fact, they are born with 20 baby (primary) teeth that just haven’t appeared (erupted) yet.
- Teething starts at around 6 months when baby teeth will begin erupting and continue to 3 years of age. Usually, the first teeth to erupt are the bottom front teeth (incisors).
- Between the age of 6 and 12 children have a combination of baby and adult teeth, as their baby teeth are gradually replaced by 32 adult teeth. The front baby teeth (incisors) are usually lost between 6 to 8 years of age, and the back teeth (canines and molars) are not lost until ages 9 to 13.
- Enamel, which is the strong layer that protects your teeth, is thinner in baby teeth as compared to adult teeth. This makes them more prone to cavities.
- Spacing between baby teeth is normal and allows space for adult teeth to erupt.
Teeth vary in size, shape and their location in the jaws. These differences enable teeth to work together to help you chew, speak and smile. They also help give your face its shape and form. At birth people usually have 20 baby (primary) teeth, which start to come in (erupt) at about 6 months of age. They fall out (shed) at various times throughout childhood. By age 21, all 32 of the permanent teeth have usually erupted.
|Baby (Primary) Teeth Eruption Chart (PDF)
||Permanent Teeth Eruption Chart (PDF)
|(source: American Dental Association)|
Your child's first visit to the dentist
Visiting the dentist is another milestone in a year of exciting firsts. Your child should visit the dentist after their first tooth erupts, or by the time they are 1 year old. Your child’s dentist is your partner in helping your child have healthy teeth. Early visits to the dentist have been shown to reduce cavities risk by providing preventative measures.
Your child’s dentist can give you tips on the best way to take care of your child’s teeth. They can also provide treatment swiftly if any issues develop. After your child’s first visit, they should return every 6 months unless their dentist recommends returning more often.
And of course, it's important to follow up the first visit with regular pediatric dental check-ups.
Throughout the childhood years, the dentist will do the following to ensure your child gets a good start to oral health:
What to expect during a pediatric dental visit
Checking your child’s teeth and mouth for erupting teeth or any issues.
Count the teeth and help you plan for further teething.
Discussing ways to take care of your child’s teeth, including establishing healthy brushing routines and forming good dietary habits.
Performing preventative treatments such as fluoride varnish or sealants.
When to start brushing with toothpaste
Decay can happen as soon as teeth first appear – even in baby teeth. So, as soon as the first baby teeth appear, it's time to start brushing. Your child’s teeth should be brushed twice daily—in the morning and before bed. Practicing flossing baby teeth is a great way to get into the habit. They are often much easier to floss than permanent teeth, and by the time the teeth are all touching your child is already in the habit.
Help them get started with brushing.
A great way to encourage children to take care of their own teeth is to help them brush and floss, and have them watch you do it as well.
A great way to encourage children to take care of their own teeth is to help them brush and floss, and have them watch you do it as well. Be available to help them until at least 6 years of age. Most children cannot effectively brush on their own until they are 8 years old, so it is important that you continue to help them as they grow up. Assist them and teach them to brush their teeth two times a day for two minutes with fluoridated toothpaste.
But don’t stop there! Even after those early years, continue brushing together with your child to reinforce those healthy habits into adulthood. It’s also a good idea to do fresh-breath checks to encourage regular brushing after meals. Studies have shown that a child’s brushing habits are largely influenced by their parents. So, encouraging and teaching your child to brush their teeth can have a lasting impact on their oral hygiene, well into their adult years.
Tips for showing children how to brush their teeth:
- For children under 2, use just a rice-sized smear of fluoride toothpaste
- For children ages 3-6, use a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste.
- Use a soft-bristled brush for two minutes, at least twice per day, and after sweet consumption.
- Show children how to hold the brush at a 45-degree angle (toward the gum line). Gently stroke all surfaces of the teeth.
- Help your child with brushing until at least age 6.
It doesn't take much to clean your child's teeth. Until you're confident that your child can brush on his or her own, continue to brush your child's teeth twice a day with a child-size toothbrush.
From the UIC Experts:
“Toothpaste needs some time to work. The fluoride in toothpaste takes a little time to start working on teeth. After brushing have your child spit out the extra toothpaste, but not rinse out with water for at least 20 minutes. This lets the small amount of toothpaste on teeth absorb and really do its job.”
“Having some sweet snacks are okay, just try to enjoy them right way after a meal , not throughout the day. Try to stick to tooth-healthy snacks like nuts, cheeses, and vegetables.”
Dr. Ian W. Marion DDS MS
Clinical Assistant Professor, Pediatric Dentistry
UIC College of Dentistry
Baby teeth are very sensitive to decay (cavities)
Cavities, are infectious and can spread – and can even cause infections in the adult teeth growing beneath them. Compared to adult teeth, baby teeth are more susceptible to decay because they have a thinner layer of enamel, the hard outer surface of the teeth. Because of this, it is easier for baby teeth to develop cavities, which are formed when bacteria living in our mouths digest sugar, turning it into acid that erodes the surface of the tooth.
You can help protect your children from tooth decay by brushing and flossing your own teeth regularly.
Babies are not born with the bacteria that causes dental decay. Instead, the bacteria is often transferred to them from their parents. When you share spoons or forks with your child, lick their pacifier when it falls on the floor, or even give them a kiss on the lips, you can transfer harmful bacteria from your mouth without realizing it.
Baby teeth can be protected with fluoride
Fluoride found in tap water and toothpaste provides an extra level of defense to your child’s baby and adult teeth. The fluoride strengthens the surface of baby and adult teeth by being absorbed into the outer layer of the teeth, making them stronger to resist decay.
How Does Drinking Water Prevent Cavities?
Drinking water with fluoride, is one of the easiest and most beneficial things you can do to help prevent cavities.
Water is unlike any other drink, and is by far the healthiest drink available. Our bodies are made of 60% water, and staying hydrated helps your system distribute healthy nutrients, gets rid of waste, gives your skin a healthy glow and keeps your muscles moving. And--drinking water really helps your teeth stay health – especially if it’s fluoridated.
Read more: 4 Ways Drinking Water Improves Your Smile
Sealants provide an extra barrier to prevent decay
Dental sealants are a thin coating that is painted on teeth to protect them from cavities. Sealants form an extra barrier between cavity-causing bacteria and your child's teeth.
And sealants are very effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and ADA’s Center for Evidence-Based Dentistry, sealants have been shown to reduce the risk of decay by nearly 80% in molars. School-age children without sealants have almost three times more cavities than children with sealants.
Sealant are especially important for children from low-income families because such children are less likely to receive dental care.
Nutrition also plays a big part in developing good dental health
A good diet is essential for a child’s growth and development – including their teeth.
Children need strong, healthy teeth to chew their food, speak and have a good-looking smile. Almost all foods, including milk or vegetables, have some type of sugar, which can contribute to tooth decay. Also, certain foods are hard on teeth and should be eaten sparingly. This includes sugary drinks like soda and juice, or sticky foods like fruit snacks and candy.
Here are some tips to help control the amount of sugar your child consumes:
- Review food labels and choose foods and beverages that are low in added sugars.
- Select beverages, such as water, that hydrate and contribute to good nutrition.
- Encourage children to drink from a cup by their first birthday and discourage frequent or prolonged use of sippy cups.
- Serve nutritious snacks and limit sweets to mealtimes. Try to limit the number of sweet snacks your child eats between meals.
Avoid nighttime bottle use
Sleeping with a bottle filled with sweetened drinks such as milk or juice allows its sugary contents to sit on teeth for long periods of time, causing damage. Baby bottle tooth decay most often occurs in the upper front teeth (but other teeth may also be affected). Frequent, prolonged exposure of the baby’s teeth to drinks that contain sugar can cause tooth decay. So, avoid filling the bottle with liquids such as sugar water, juice or soft drinks. And, encourage babies to finish their bedtime and naptime bottles before going to bed.
Baby teeth can also be harmed by too much pacifier use or finger sucking
It is common for children to use pacifiers or suck their thumbs. But prolonged sucking can actually change the position of their teeth! This can make it hard to chew or speak, and can cause adult teeth to be displaced as well. If your child uses a pacifier, provide one that is clean—don’t dip it in sugar or honey, or put it in your mouth before giving it to the child.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children stop finger sucking by 3 years of age. If habits persist, your dentist can suggest ways to help them stop. This could include coating the finger with a bitter-tasting varnish or temporarily installing a mouth appliance that helps prevent sucking.
What about breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding has been shown to be beneficial for a baby’s health and development, but there are few things to consider for good dental health. Breast milk by itself does not promote tooth decay. But breastfed babies who fall asleep while nursing with un-swallowed milk in their mouths are more vulnerable to tooth decay, especially if foods and liquids with sugar and carbohydrates have been introduced to their diet. Clean the baby's mouth with a wet washcloth after breastfeeding, and encourage a bottle with plain water during nighttime.
Even though your child will lose their baby teeth, they should be cared for as if they were permanent. Maintaining baby teeth largely falls on the adults who care for them. Simply keeping your own teeth healthy and brushing your teeth regularly can have a positive impact on your child’s oral health. By helping prevent dental decay and forming good oral hygiene habits with your children, you can help them keep their smiles for a lifetime.
By keeping these facts in mind, you can ensure your child is on the way to a healthy smile for the rest of their lives. Their adult teeth will be here before you know it!
This article was inspired by an essay from:
Lina Al-Chaar, DMD Candidate
UIC College of Dentistry
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “Dental Caries (Tooth Decay) in Children (Ages 2-11). National Institutes of Health.
Nowak, Arthur J, et al. “Do Early Dental Visits Reduce Treatment and Treatment Costs for Children?” Pediatric Dentistry, vol. 36, 214, pp. 489-493
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Dentistry
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