First-time parents beware: dental care for children, especially young children, is not for the faint of heart. (Try convincing a three-year-old to let you brush all twenty of his baby teeth — you’ll see.)
But despite the obvious challenges, your child’s dental health is as important in the early years as it is later in life. A strong set of baby teeth not only helps your child chew and speak, but it sets the stage for healthy chompers later in life.
You might not realize it, but your child’s permanent teeth are busy developing incognito just below that set of baby teeth. Bacteria from cavities in baby teeth sometimes spreads to adult teeth, increasing the risk for decay later in life. Also, losing baby teeth too early, because of decay, may cause permanent teeth to grow in crooked when they drift into the empty spaces left behind.
Regular trips to the dentist are crucial, and a solid dental care routine for your child begins at home. Here is everything you need to know to keep your child’s dental health in check.
Baby Teeth Coming and Going
Of course, at the heart of all this talk about children’s dental health is a set of twenty tiny little baby teeth. So when, exactly, do baby teeth come in? And when should you plan for that first tooth fairy visit?
Getting baby teeth: When your child was born, she already had a full set of baby teeth just under the gums. Every child is different, but most get their first tooth between six and twelve months old. The incisors — the front two teeth on the top and bottom — usually appear first. For most children, a full set of baby teeth grows in by age three.
Losing baby teeth: When it comes to losing teeth, your child’s mouth operates on the general principle of first in, first out. Most children lose their incisors between six and eight years old. (Hence why first and second-grade class pictures are riddled with toothless smiles.) Canine and molar teeth hold out a little longer, falling out between the age of nine and twelve.
Also, don’t be surprised if it takes awhile for that toothless grin to fill in. Permanent teeth sometimes take a year to fully erupt.
Brushing and Flossing by Age
A home dental care routine for your child centers around regular brushing and flossing, and it starts earlier than you might think.
Babies with no teeth: Begin cleaning your baby’s mouth even before her first teeth come in. Cavity-causing bacteria affects a baby’s teeth from the day they first poke through the gums, but it is sometimes difficult to tell when new teeth start pushing through. Because of this, get in the habit of wiping your child’s toothless gums with a clean, damp cloth at least once each day.
Until age three: When your child’s first teeth come in, it’s time to up the ante on dental health and start brushing twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush. For children under three years old, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends using a smear of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice.
Ages three to seven: Until age seven, children don’t have the dexterity — or, let’s face it, the patience — to brush their own teeth well. Help your child brush his teeth with a pea-sized dollop of fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush.
By age three or so, most children want to “help” with brushing. This is good practice and helps children develop solid dental health habits. But after your child attempts his version of brushing, make sure to do your own parent round as well.
Around the age of three, your child also starts flossing. Most dentists recommend a child begin flossing daily once teeth start to touch.
Age seven and up: By age seven, most children are ready to take dental care into their own hands by brushing and flossing independently. That being said, it is a good idea for parents to monitor brushing and flossing for a few more years. Consider using a timer to help your child brush for a full two minutes, and check in to make sure she doesn’t neglect the hard-to-reach areas of her mouth.
Fluoride in Mouthwash and Water
Around 75% of homes in the US already have fluoridated water, and studies suggest fluoride in drinking water is a major part of children’s dental health; fluoridated water reduces cavities by at least 25%.
The ADA discourages children under six from using mouthwash with fluoride, because it contains a greater level of fluoride than drinking water. Before six, children don’t have a fully developed swallowing reflex and just aren’t reliable at the whole rinse-and-spit routine.
Most children do not need fluoride supplements other than in toothpaste, water, and topical treatments at the dentist. If you live in an area without fluoridated water and your child is at a high risk for cavities, your dentist might prescribe fluoride supplements.
As with anything related to your child’s dental care, your dentist is the best resource for information about your specific needs.
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