So you finally feel like you have this parenthood thing down… your baby is thriving, smiling, laughing, sleeping through the night….and then those little teeth begin poking through! Sometimes those teeth might come in with little warning or discomfort while many other times the whole house is effected by this new milestone. Teething horror stories aside, tooth eruption begins a new chapter in your baby’s life, and yet another care routine to add into the mix. If you are here for insight into how to add tooth care into your daily schedule as seamlessly as possible then read on as I try to address the most common questions that I get asked often as a pediatric dentist.
When Should I Start Caring For My Baby’s Teeth?
The simple answer to this question is that you should begin taking care of the baby teeth as soon as they erupt into the mouth. Not only is immediate action important in prevention of future cavities, but it also exposes children at a young age to the process of tooth brushing. As is true with other areas of child development, a child will benefit and become more comfortable with something the more exposure that they have to it.
You may also ask, “When should I begin to take my child to the dentist?”. The official recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry is that you take your child to see a dentist within 6 months of the first tooth erupting or by age 1, whichever date comes sooner. At this visit it is not expected that the child cooperate fully for a polishing and exam, however it is important to begin establishing a relationship with a dentist for the benefit of both the parent and the child. These initial appointments also allow the dentist to be able to discuss hygiene, diet, and non-nutritive habits (such as thumb sucking and pacifier use) with the parent.
Now, you may also be wondering (as many parents do) if it is even possible for a child to develop a cavity at such a young age. The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Many cases of early childhood decay arise from a combination of factors, but most often it occurs when a baby or toddler has milk before bed and then does not get their teeth brushed before falling asleep. This allows the milk to sit on the surface of the teeth undisturbed all night long. At nighttime our mouths are typically dry and we are not swallowing frequently, and therefore the milk (and subsequently carbohydrates and sugars) are allowed to remain on the enamel of the teeth. The most common locations to be effected by this are the top front teeth (as the lip usually holds the liquids tight against the teeth on the top, as well as the groove surfaces of the back teeth.
How Do I Brush My Baby & Toddler’s Teeth?
I will share with you here today the steps that I find to be the easiest and most effective way to brush baby and toddler teeth. There are, however, many ways to do this task and ultimately the most important thing is that one way or another this is accomplished.
- Sit on your floor and lay your child into your lap such that their head is directly in the center of your lap and their legs extend out into a vertical position.
- As comfortably as possible maintain the stability of your child’s head while you brush their teeth, being sure to use circular motions with your brushing technique and brushing each surface of each tooth.
- If your child is very resistant to this, simply be sure to comfortably control their head movement while you can cross your legs atop of theirs to keep their legs and body still. If your child is reaching up with their hands you can enlist someone to help gently hold their hands while the tooth brushing task is completed.
- If your child has teeth that touch close together you will also want to floss between the teeth at this time using either conventional floss or floss picks (you can find kid friendly ones in the tooth care aisle at most major retailers)
Regarding the best type of toothbrush and toothpaste to use for your child, here are my general recommendations. You should use a toothbrush labeled infant or toddler, if the toothbrush is not labeled as such just be sure you are using one with a small head. Some parents will logic that if the brush end is bigger than it can cover more teeth at the same time making the process quicker, however this is not the case as the large head prevents you from getting a detailed cleaning of the surface and may also hurt the child or stimulate their gag reflex which ultimately leads to an unpleasant experience for your little one.
For toothpaste, the AAP and AAPD now recommends using fluoridated toothpaste from the time your child has their first tooth. Use only a tiny smear of toothpaste until your child reaches the age of 3 and then can tolerate a pea sized amount of toothpaste. When this small amount is used then there will be no concerns if your child cannot spit the excess into the sink (which most children will not be able to appropriately do until about age 3-4)
And lastly, “how often should I brush my baby’s teeth?” is another common question. My best advice is to make a goal of brushing well twice a day, however if this is not realistic for whatever reason, focusing your best efforts to brush before bed is where you can expect to derive the biggest benefit. You should aim for having the teeth as clean as possible before your child drifts off to sleep!
How Do I Make Brushing Teeth Fun And Not A Struggle?
Admittedly, tooth brushing with children can be a struggle and sometimes even a downright fight. Typically this is the case when children are either not used to the routine, have heightened sensitivity, a small mouth, or a sensitive gag reflex. There are several ways in which you can try to make tooth brushing fun and positive, even for a baby or toddler.
- Use a sticker chart for toddlers with some sort of reward once a certain number of days go by where the child has exhibited cooperation with brushing (the reward does not have to be food or monetary related, can be something as simple as doing their favorite activity or extra playtime etc.)
- Have someone read a book or play with a stuffed animal or puppet within the child’s view while they are getting their teeth brushed
- Play or sing your child’s favorite song while brushing
- Be sure to give lots of positive praise and hugs following brushing (this is important even if you feel that the child was not cooperative you can say “thank you for allowing me to help clean your teeth”)
- As toddlers get older they will certainly begin to exert their independence and this may hinder your tooth brushing efforts. The best way to keep it positive in this case is to allow the children to brush themselves at first, afterwards saying “great job, now let mommy or daddy make sure that you did not miss any spots! Can you open big for me so I can help look?”
As you can see here, there is not one single answer to make the process of brushing your child’s teeth an easy one, however there are many tips that, if used routinely, can make this process an effective and positive one. Ultimately the more consistent the parent is with making tooth brushing a part of the routine, the more relaxed and comfortable the child will become with this. Now, in many cases, this ease may take some time to fully acquire, but rest assured you can get there, just don’t give up trying!
About The Author:
Dr. Mikaeya Kalantari has been a practicing pediatric dentist for over 7 years working in both the children's hospital setting and private practice. She has had a wealth of experience treating children of all ages, and medical conditions. When it comes to serving children, she feels the importance of communication between the dentist and parent can not be emphasized enough. Dr. Kalantari practices in her family owned dental office in Mission Viejo, California.
Do you have a child going through the teething stage? You can check out another article by Dr. Kalantari titled Teething Remedies: From The Perspective of a Pediatric Dentist