Your child’s dental health: A timeline
As our children grow, so do their teeth. Kids will often experience excitement (and some anxiety) when their first baby tooth begins to wiggle and eventually falls out. But, there’s so much more behind a child’s dental health than anticipating that special gift from the tooth fairy. A Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry expert breaks down the specific timeline of what should happen—and when—to keep your child’s smile healthy and happy.
Your baby’s dental care begins even before birth
First things first: The oral health of your child begins at conception—and it’s extremely important to visit a dentist before, during and after pregnancy. “The mother’s dental health affects her overall health and her baby’s health,” said William Wathen, DMD, associate professor at the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry. “Statistically, mothers with poor oral health are at risk for premature and underweight births.”
It’s important to remember that anything happening in mom’s body chemistry is also happening to the baby. This is one reason why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines urging expecting mothers to never drink alcohol during pregnancy. The same goes for drugs, tobacco smoke, and volatile chemical compounds. The takeaway: What’s in mom’s blood will be in the baby’s blood, as well.
“The same thing can be said of oral health,” Wathen said. “Mothers-to-be need to realize controlling plaque and limiting high-starch and sugary foods is crucial. Cavities are “contagious”, because germs in the mother’s mouth and family’s mouth will be in a baby’s mouth. Since babies aren’t born with their own oral flora, they adapt it soon after they’re born from their family.”
Birth to six months
Almost instantly after birth, new parents should gently massage their baby’s gums with their little finger, a small, soft cloth or a rubber fingertip toothbrush. This will allow your baby to become acclimated to objects in their mouth other than the nipple. “If parents are consistent with this action, it will prevent most fussing and fretting when the infant is eventually taken to the dentist,” Wathen said. “You should do this a few times a day for no more than two or three seconds.”
After months of cooing at your baby’s adorable, gummy smile, you finally spot a tooth erupting from their gums. When teeth appear (usually around six months of age), it’s important to use a soft cloth to remove plaque from their surfaces at least twice a day—especially before and after feedings and before bedtime.
Worth noting, baby-bottle syndrome is a very real problem and can cause tooth loss later in life. “Parents should never put sugary liquids in their baby’s bottle and let them go to sleep,” Wathen said. “This will guarantee tooth loss.”
To prevent baby bottle-syndrome, fill your infant’s bottle with pure water anywhere between room temperature and body temperature. “Unfiltered fluoridated tap water should be fine if your municipal water meets standards. In proper amounts, science has proven the prevention power behind fluoride,” Wathen said. “For those who oppose fluoride or don’t have access to a trusted water source, I would filter or distill it before use.”
Infant to toddler
Baby teeth may be small and temporary, but they’re important since they act as placeholders for adult teeth. After your child’s first few teeth pop up, you can graduate to cleaning them with a soft toothbrush with a small head and large handle. “At first, just wet the toothbrush and massage their teeth gently,” Wathen said. “Infant toothpastes are safe to use, but, you shouldn’t use fluoridated toothpaste until your child is old enough to spit it out—normally around three to four years of age.”
Wathen said parents need to brush their child’s teeth until they are old enough to brush independently. It’s also imperative to supervise the process until the child can rinse and spit without assistance. “The old adage is kids can’t adequately brush their teeth until they can write cursive— at around seven or eight years old,” he said.
Parents should also introduce adult-sized cups and drinking glasses to their children as soon as they are able to manipulate a small cup. “Using sippy cups can be detrimental and may cause misalignment of the jaw,” Wathen said. “The earlier you can wean your kids off them, the better.”
Pacifiers can also be a problem—especially if they are over-used or are badly shaped. Wathen recommended using flattened types that most closely follow the natural form of a mothers’ nipple during nursing.
The first trip to the dentist
Your baby’s initial dental appointment should be made within six months to a year after birth. “This visit will be quick if you’ve taken care of the mouth,” Wathen said. “Always schedule this early in the day before the child is tired.”
After their visit as an infant, parents should schedule dental checkups every six months to ensure healthy teeth during childhood. “Many parents prefer to take their kids to pediatric dentists who are specifically trained to see children, but many general dentists will see kids, too,” Wathen said. “It depends on your preference.”
Giving kids a happy and healthy start makes their first dental visit as a toddler easy (and hopefully less frightening). Wathen recommend parents take children with them to their own dental appointments. This will adapt the child to the different sights, smells and sounds of a dental office. “Often, parents may be more anxious about a dental appointment than the child. Children can sense anxiety and it can be transferred,” he said. “Parents should always try to keep their cool and not let the dental office be a scary place.”
According to Wathen, the first visits to the dentist will be quick, cursory exams. Sometimes X-rays are taken to confirm teeth are growing correctly. The hygienist and dentist may even play with the toothbrush and share tips with your child about brushing.
“We never want the dental office to be a stressful place for the child,” Wathen said. “It’s important for both dental health experts and parents to work together to instill good dental habits in children. Kids do what their parents do, and you should always let your child be part of your own effective oral health routine.”