Good dental hygiene habits should be established before an infant has teeth. Though this may seem premature, implementing proper dental care before a baby’s teeth begin to erupt will set the stage for a lifetime of healthy smiles.
But how can parents start caring for their baby’s teeth before they’ve actually emerged? All you need to do is gently wipe your baby’s gums with a clean, wet washcloth or gauze after each feeding. This will help eliminate the bacteria that cause tooth decay as well as help your baby grow accustomed to the sensation of having his or her teeth brushed.
In addition, gum cleaning is soothing for baby and offers a wonderful bonding opportunity for both baby and parent. In fact, most babies respond very positively to the gentle massage-like sensation—especially babies who have itchy, irritated gums as a result of teething.
Once your baby’s first tooth appears, usually between the ages of six months and one year, you can begin to use an infant toothbrush after every feeding and at bedtime. An infant toothbrush has very soft, rounded bristles, so it won’t scratch your baby’s sensitive gums.
Your dentist may recommend that you brush your infant’s teeth with water only or with just a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. If you do choose to use toothpaste, be sure to purchase a product designed specifically for infants—one containing no fluoride. Your baby will likely swallow the toothpaste, and fluoridated toothpastes can cause problems if they are continually ingested over time.
Getting the earliest possible start on a child’s dental hygiene is more important than many parents realize. Why? Because baby teeth have a thinner enamel layer and are more vulnerable to bacteria than adult teeth are. Hence, any decay that gets a foothold can penetrate to the nerve much more rapidly than it typically will in adult teeth.
But aren’t baby teeth just destined to fall out anyway? What difference does it make whether they decay or fall out early? Remember, baby teeth serve as a placeholder for adult teeth. If baby teeth are lost prematurely, the adult teeth will be much more likely to come in crooked.
One of the biggest dental-health problems facing young children is a condition called “baby-bottle tooth decay” (BBTD). This condition can develop when a young child’s teeth are continually bathed with sugars present in milk, formula, fruit juice, or other sugary beverages—usually because the child takes a bottle filled with one of these liquids to bed or has them frequently throughout the day. The sugars present in the liquid are converted to acid by bacteria in the baby’s mouth, and this acid begins to dissolve the teeth, usually beginning with the upper front teeth. Not only can BBTD cause severe damage to your child’s baby teeth, but it can also lead to problems that affect the permanent teeth. To prevent BBTD:
- Avoid putting your child to bed with a bottle.
- Avoid using a bottle as a pacifier. Limit bottles to feeding times only.
- Regularly clean your baby’s gums and teeth.
- Teach your child to drink from a cup as soon as possible.
Of course, along with initiating good dental-hygiene practices at home, you’ll want to be sure to schedule your child’s first visit to the dentist by the age of one year or within six months after his or her first tooth comes in. The first dental visit doesn’t usually involve much in the way of treatment, but it’s an opportunity for your child to get acquainted and comfortable with the dentist, staff, and office surroundings. It’s also a chance for the dentist and parents to discuss the child’s developmental milestones, such as teething; fluoride needs; oral habits, such as thumb sucking or tongue thrusting; good oral hygiene practices and cavity prevention; and proper nutrition for good oral health.