Baby teeth (also called primary teeth) begin to erupt at around 6 months of age, and most children have a full set of 20 baby teeth by age 3. Baby teeth help your child chew and speak, give the face its shape, and hold space for the adult teeth (permanent teeth) to come in around age 6. Tooth decay can begin as soon as your baby’s teeth come in. Decay that is left untreated can lead to cavities and cause pain or infection.
As teeth erupt, babies may have sore or tender gums. To help soothe your baby’s pain, you can gently rub their gums with a clean wet gauze, your finger, or a small, cool spoon. You can also try a clean, chilled (not frozen) teething ring. Be sure not to dip the ring in anything sweet or in other foods. The American Dental Association (ADA) does not recommend using any OTC teething products containing benzocaine, such as Anbesol®, Hurricaine®, Orajel®, Baby Orajel®, and Orabase®. These products can cause serious reactions in children.
How to brush your child’s teeth
As soon as your baby’s first tooth appears, start brushing twice a day (morning and night). Use a child-sized toothbrush with soft bristles or a finger brush for better control. Position your child so you can see into the mouth easily. Brush your child’s teeth until they have the dexterity to do it on their own.
When teaching your child how to correctly brush on their own, we recommend standing behind them and holding the brush for them while they watch in the mirror. Place the toothbrush against the tooth where it meets the gums. Use a 45 degree angle to ensure the brush fully reaches the gum line as well as the tooth surface. Move the brush gently in short, soft circles. Brush the outer, inner and chewing surface of each tooth. For children under 3, use only a smear or grain-of-rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. For children 3 and over, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Be sure to teach your child to spit out all of the toothpaste after brushing. Let your child pick out the color and design of the brush or ask your hygienist to recommend an electric toothbrush that is right for your child.
How to floss your child’s teeth
Cleaning between your child’s teeth with floss or a floss aid helps remove plaque where toothbrush bristles can’t reach. Since flossing can be challenging for children to do by themselves, the ADA recommends that you floss your child’s teeth daily until they can do it alone. Guide the floss between your child’s teeth and rub the side of the tooth gently. Take care not to snap the floss into their gums by curving the floss so that it hugs the base of the tooth.
Your baby may have his/her first visit (Well-baby Checkup) with the dentist after the first tooth appears. It is best to introduce your child to the dentist before a dental emergency happens so that the child has a pleasant initial experience in a dental office, which can greatly reduce dental anxiety in the future.
During your child’s first visit, your dentist will do a complete oral exam to check your child’s gum and tooth health (no decay!). Tooth alignment and growth patterns will be monitored to watch for problems with your child’s bite (how the upper and lower teeth come together). Your hygienist will demonstrate the proper way to care for baby teeth at home, evaluate dental caries risks, and discuss teething, pacifier use and how to curtail finger/thumb sucking habits. Having your child visit the dentist for regular cleanings, fluoride treatments, and sealants can prevent tooth decay and reduce the need for further dental treatment. A dental sealant is a plastic material that is put on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth. The sealant material flows into the pits and grooves on those surfaces and acts like a barrier, protecting the enamel by “sealing out” bacteria and bits of food. Sealants can last for several years, and best of all, application of sealants is fast and painless.
Special Tips for Ages 6-12
Children begin to lose their front teeth around age 5 or 6. All 20 baby teeth will usually fall out (shed) between ages 6 and 12. Most children have all of their adult teeth except for wisdom teeth by 12 to 14 years old.
Sometimes, a baby tooth is lost before the adult tooth below is ready to come in. If this happens, the nearby teeth may shift into the open space, causing the adult tooth (when it is finally ready to erupt) to come in crooked or in the wrong place. Crooked, crowded teeth may cause jaw misalignment (bad bites), excessive enamel wear, and speech difficulties. Crooked teeth are also harder to clean and are more prone to tooth decay as well as gum diseases. Your child’s dentist will carefully monitor their bite at every visit – another important reason to schedule regular dental checkups. If your child loses a tooth too early, your dentist may recommend a space maintainer – a plastic or metal retainer – that holds open the space left by the missing tooth. The retainer will be removed once the adult tooth begins to appear.
We have detailed recommendations on how to manage common dental emergencies on our website. We also provide a handout “Handling Dental Emergencies” by the ADA at our office upon request