Sep 17, 2018, 10:10:56 AM CDT Jan 30, 2023, 12:47:42 PM CST

Dental health for kids

It's never too early to start establishing healthy dental habits. Brush up on your FAQs to prevent tooth decay in kids.

Little girl brushing her teeth Little girl brushing her teeth

Getting your child to brush his or her teeth is a twice-daily struggle that many parents know all too well. Dental health shouldn't be a chore, though. It's an important part of your child's overall health and should be just as important as vaccines and annual check-ups with your child's pediatrician.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tooth decay is one of the most common chronic health conditions for children in the United States. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics states:

  • About 10% of 2-year-olds have one cavity or more
  • By age 5, nearly 50% of children have one or more cavities

At Children's Health℠, our pediatric dental team provides age-appropriate education on caring for the teeth and gums and preventing tooth decay. Below, we answer a few of the most commonly asked questions about dental health for kids.

When should I start brushing my baby's teeth?

It's never too early to start brushing your child's teeth. Starting at birth, clean your child's gums with a soft infant toothbrush or a washcloth and water. Once teeth erupt from the gum line, start brushing twice daily with a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste.

What age should a child start brushing their own teeth?

At age 3, preschoolers can graduate to a "pea-sized" drop of fluoride toothpaste. While they can't effectively brush their teeth on their own, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry suggests letting preschoolers brush their teeth on their own and then parents can follow-up with a more thorough cleaning.

Be sure to remind children to spit out the toothpaste and rinse their mouths out after brushing their teeth. And remember, the most important time to brush your child's teeth is right before bedtime.

What age should a child go to the dentist?

The days of waiting until age 3 to go to the dentist are over. Now, experts recommend babies see a dentist as soon as they get their first tooth, or no later than their first birthday. Connecting with a dentist at an early age helps establish a dental home – giving you a place to go with dental emergencies or questions.

Regularly scheduled dental checkups also ensure that your child's oral health care is delivered in a comprehensive, coordinated and family-centered manner – answering all your questions and establishing healthy routines at an early age.

How do you prevent baby bottle tooth decay?

Try to avoid giving your baby a bottle in the crib to help him or her fall asleep. Instead, establish routines that don't require a bottle: Take a warm bath, sing or read books and rock in a dark, quiet room.

Milk and formula contain sugar. When your baby drinks from a bottle throughout the night, the teeth are "attacked" by bacterial acid for an extended period, which leads to tooth decay and cavities. If your baby must have a bottle at night, use nothing but water.

Sippy cups can also lead to dental decay. Instead, offer regular cups of water between meals and use sippy cups only at meal times. Call your dentist right away if you notice white spots developing on your baby's teeth. This is the first sign of a dental cavity.

When can my child start using regular toothpaste?

Any toothpaste approved by the American Dental Association (ADA) is safe for children. Be sure to follow safety guidelines for how much to use:

  • 1 year and under: water and a soft toothbrush or washcloth
  • First tooth to age 3: small smear of toothpaste
  • Ages 3 to 6: pea-size drop of toothpaste

Remind children to spit out toothpaste and rinse mouths after brushing teeth.

Do cavities in baby teeth affect permanent teeth?

Children with unhealthy teeth are at risk for several oral health problems that can impact their permanent teeth. Left untreated, tooth decay can:

  • Cause significant pain
  • Destroy tooth structure
  • Lead to an infection that damages permanent teeth
  • Put children at higher risk of developing gum disease
  • Cause teeth to twist or grow out of place

How can I get my toddler to brush their teeth?

Parents know that coaxing children to brush their teeth twice a day isn't always easy. Since children love to mimic their parents, the dental team at Children's Health encourages parents to model good dental health. Let your child see you brush your teeth or try brushing your teeth together. Talk about the choices you make for healthy teeth and gums, and encourage your child to do the same.

There are also several fun games and apps you can use to make brushing teeth a little more exciting. Or, you can use a simple timer and "race" the clock to brush for two full minutes. If your child needs a little extra motivation, try making a reward chart that your child can fill with stickers.

Learn more

If you have any questions about your child's dental health, contact the Dentistry and Orthodontics division at Children's Health.

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