Home Dental Care for Your Child

Your baby's delicate gums and tiny teeth need attention from the very beginning, which means that setting up good habits early is crucial. However, many moms and dads are unsure about what good dental care entails. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about caring for your child’s oral health at home.

When Should I Start Brushing My Baby’s Teeth?

Ensuring healthy teeth for life begins even before that first tooth appears. Start by wiping your baby's gums after feeding to help reduce bacteria that may be lurking there. There’s no need to use toothpaste; just lightly wipe or brush the gums, in circular motions, with a soft moist washcloth, a piece of gauze, or a soft, wet toothbrush. Although your baby may not immediately understand what you’re doing, babies do love routines and will start to recognize dental care as part of their day. You’ll also get her used to the feeling of having his mouth cleaned, which will help make the transition to brushing her teeth a little easier. As soon as you see a tooth, add “brush teeth” to the morning and evening rituals.

How Should I Clean My Baby’s First Teeth?

Use a wet, soft-bristled brush or a soft, textured finger cover to gently brush your baby’s teeth and gums. The aim is to remove bacteria that can turn into damaging plaque, a sticky, usually colorless film on the teeth that causes decay.

Bacteria can also be transferred to your baby’s mouth by sharing things like spoons and cups, so if you’re particularly meticulous, this should be kept to a minimum.

How Many Times a Day Should I Brush My Child’s Teeth?

Twice a day is ideal. You should brush her teeth after breakfast and at night. Just remember not to give any more food or drink (except water) afterward, to prevent bacteria from lingering.

How Long Should I Brush My Child’s Teeth?

When your little one only has a few teeth, giving them a thorough clean may not take long at all. Once your toddler has a full set of baby teeth, though, it usually takes about two minutes to do a good job of cleaning. Remember to clean both the front and back of each tooth, and reach to the far back teeth as well. Use a timer to ensure you brush for long enough.

What Kind of Baby Toothpaste Should I Use, and How Much?

Look for a children’s toothpaste containing fluoride, which helps prevent cavities. When your child is younger than 3 years old use just a tiny smear, about the size of a grain of rice. Then, when your child is 3 or older, you can increase to a pea-sized amount. Remember to supervise during tooth brushing, as fluoride can be harmful if swallowed in large amounts.

What Kind of Baby Toothbrush Should I Use?

Your supermarket or drugstore will stock a wide selection of infant toothbrushes. There are usually baby, toddler, and child sizes available. Choose a brush suitable for your baby’s age that has soft bristles, a small head, and a long handle. Soft bristles are better because hard ones scrape the gums, and bacteria can thrive in these tiny scrapes. Baby toothbrushes can be replaced every three to six months, or sooner if they wear out.

Are All Babies This Squirmy and Wriggly When it Comes to Brushing?

Some babies can definitely fight the toothbrush, and brushing a squirmy baby’s teeth can be challenging. Check out these tips and tricks to help your little one enjoy (or at least put up with) having her teeth brushed.

Need a quick recap on all of this? Watch this short video:

When Can I Start to Teach My Child to Brush His Own Teeth?

Teaching your child to brush his own teeth is a long process that starts in babyhood. Initially you’ll be familiarizing him with the feeling of having his mouth cleaned, and you’ll be teaching him the importance of a daily oral care routine. With time, let him start to handle the brush and do little tasks like squeezing the toothpaste onto the brush. Toddlers can start to brush their own teeth as practice, but will still need mom or dad to step in and do the thorough clean for them for at least a few years.

When a child can hold the brush confidently, and has the control and personal responsibility to thoroughly brush his own teeth, he can start to brush his teeth by himself. However, it’s still important to supervise, particularly the brushing, rinsing, and spitting process.

When Can My Child Brush Unsupervised?

Most children need a hand to make sure the job is done properly until they’re about 7 or 8. At this age, children are often able to thoroughly clean their teeth, and can take responsibility for cleaning their teeth as part of their morning and nightly routines. Of course, reminders to “brush your teeth” may still be required.

How Do I Avoid My Child Getting a Rotten Tooth?

Baby tooth decay results from leftover sugar clinging to the teeth. The sugar becomes acidic and can then break down the enamel. This sugar can come from residual milk, formula, juice, or other food left in the mouth after eating. Here are some tips to help avoid a rotten tooth:

  • Wipe your baby’s gums after feeding.

    After you've nursed or given your baby a bottle, it’s a good idea to wipe his gums.

  • Establish good brushing habits.

    Brush those teeth twice a day, and teach your child the importance of healthy oral hygiene habits.

  • Avoid giving sugary food and drinks.

    Keeping sugar consumption at a minimum will help protect your baby’s teeth and promote overall wellbeing, so do avoid sweet foods, drinks, and snacks, particularly before bedtime. Some kinds of gummy candy or fruit rolls, for example, are mostly sugar, and stick all day to the chewing surface of the teeth.

  • Serve calcium-rich foods.

    Calcium-rich foods make for happy teeth, so in addition to having your toddler drink milk, encourage your child to eat lots of cheese and yogurt.

  • Avoid giving frequent snacks.

    The time between meals allows saliva to wash away the harmful bacteria.

  • Avoid “bottle rot.”

    Baby bottle tooth decay or “bottle rot” occurs when a baby drinks frequently during the day from a bottle, or is put to bed with a bottle, filled with formula, milk, juice, soft drinks, sugar water, or sugary drinks. The bacteria in the mouth changes the natural or added sugars in these liquids to acid, which then dissolves the outer layer of the teeth and causes decay, especially in the front upper teeth. To prevent it, avoid giving your child sugary drinks, or putting sugar on his pacifier, and never allow your child to fall asleep with a bottle. The flow of saliva also decreases during sleep, making any sugar even more likely to cling to the teeth and cause damage.

  • Treat signs of decay early.

    The first signs of tooth decay in babies are usually chalky, white areas on the teeth, along the gum line. Early treatment can prevent the condition from getting worse, so be sure to visit a dentist for a cleaning and advice, and start to implement healthy dental care habits.

Can Fluoride Prevent Tooth Decay?

Fluoride is an important mineral that strengthens tooth enamel and can help prevent tooth decay and cavities. Children should be drinking fluoridated water and brushing their teeth with fluoridated toothpaste. Across the United States, the kind and amount of fluoridation in tap water varies from region to region; don’t assume, however, that if your child drinks bottled water with fluoride, that that’s enough. Ask your dentist about whether additional fluoride supplements and fluoride rinses are required. As fluoride toothpaste can be harmful if swallowed in large amounts, use just a rice grain-sized smear for children under 3, and a pea-sized amount for children aged 3 to 6.

What Should I Do If My Child Injures a Tooth?

Some injuries don’t require an immediate visit to the dentist, but a tooth that’s completely knocked out may need urgent action so that it can be re-implanted. Read more about the most common tooth injuries, and consult your dentist should an injury occur.

Baby Teeth Eventually Fall Out, So Why Is Dental Care So Important?

Even though your child will lose his first teeth, proper care for them, including fillings, coatings, and extraction of teeth that have died, are all part of ensuring that the teeth underneath and the jaw grow well and stay healthy.

How Often Should My Child Go to the Dentist?

Make that first dentist appointment when the first baby teeth appear or around your child's first birthday, whichever comes first. Then, from the time your child is 1 year old, he should be visiting the dentist twice a year to keep his teeth in top condition. Be ready for suggestions about care that weren’t options when you were a child.

How Long Can My Child Use a Pacifier?

The prolonged use of a pacifier, especially if your child sucks strongly, can result in damage to teeth and bite. Talk to your child's pediatrician or dentist if your child is still using a pacifier at age 2 to 4.

With good dental care at home and in the dentist's chair — as well as the right amount of fluoride — your child should go through adulthood with a white, bright smile. For a quick recap on how to keep your child’s teeth cavity-free, check out this quick guide: