Skip to site content

California Area Office logoCalifornia Area Office

February - Taking Care of Your Childs Teeth

Image of Margo Kerrigan
Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H, Area Director

Indian Health Service California Area Office

Your child’s first teeth (baby teeth), called primary teeth, are very important in normal development including; chewing, speaking, and appearance.   Primary teeth hold the space for the permanent teeth and help give the face shape and form.  Usually a baby’s front four teeth erupt first, anytime between 6 and 14 months.  The full complement of primary teeth (20) usually erupts by three years of age. 

Keeping the primary teeth healthy and free of decay should begin the first few days after birth.  It is recommended that new mothers wipe their baby’s gums with a clean gauze pad or washcloth after every feeding.   This will help to remove plaque and food particles and helps children to get accustomed to having their mouths cleaned.   When teeth start to erupt, your baby can have sore gums.  Rubbing and cleaning the area can help with the discomfort.   As the back teeth (molars) start to erupt, you can gently brush those teeth with a soft appropriately sized toothbrush.   At first use water, when your baby can spit and not swallow, it is time to use a small (pea size) amount of fluoride toothpaste. 

Ideally the first visit occurs before your child’s first birthday.   By starting visits at an early age, you will help to build a lifetime of good dental habits.  Besides a thorough examination, the dentist can address a number of issues, including: reviewing feeding practices, providing dietary counselling and asking questions about oral development, teething, pacifier and thumb sucking habits. 

Dental decay (cavities) can occur as soon as the first tooth erupts.  The best ways to prevent tooth decay are brushing and a healthy diet.   When we eat food or drink liquids that contain sugars and starches, plaque, the sticky film of bacteria that constantly forms on our teeth, can produce acids that attack tooth enamel.   The more frequently that these acid exposures occur,  the higher the risk for tooth decay.  So limiting the frequency of exposure is important.  

Tooth decay can occur when a baby is put to bed with a bottle that contains anything other than water.  Milk, formula, fruit juice and even breast milk contain sugars.   Bacteria in the mouth use these sugars to cause tooth decay.  Encourage children to drink from a cup by their first birthday.  Discourage frequent and prolonged use of a “Sippy Cup”.  Pacifiers should be clean and never dip them in any sugary substance before giving it to the baby. 

As children get older, their diet should include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Discourage starchy and sugary snacks and limit sweets to mealtimes.  It is important to both brush and floss your child’s teeth until they possess the necessary skill level to do it themselves.   Around ages 4-5, children can start to brush their own teeth with your supervision and assistance.  Use a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste and remind them not to swallow.   Choose an appropriate child-sized toothbrush.  When teaching a child how to brush, you may want to stand behind the child and hold the brush to make certain a proper job is being done.  It is a good idea to continue to watch your children brush their teeth until at least ages 10-11.  Set a good example by brushing and flossing your teeth daily.

Dental sealants are a very effective method to reduce the incidence of decay.  A sealant is a material applied by your dental professional to the chewing surface of back teeth.   The sealant acts as a barrier to protect the grooves in the chewing surface of the teeth by covering them with a thin coating that keeps out plaque and food, thus decreasing the risk of decay.  Both primary and permanent teeth can benefit from sealants.  Your dentist can determine if your child would benefit from dental sealants. 

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that has been shown to prevent cavities and helps to repair early stages of decay.   Fluoride works by making tooth enamel more resistant to the acid that causes decay.  Fluoride is obtained in two forms: topical and systemic.  Systemic fluoride is swallowed by drinking fluoridated water and taking dietary supplements (vitamins).   Topical fluoride is found in toothpaste, rinses and the fluoride applied at the dental office.    Before giving your child any vitamin or supplement with fluoride, please check with your dentist or pediatrician.

Dental decay is not inevitable!  Good oral hygiene, eating habits and regular dental visits can keep your child’s teeth in excellent health.