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How to Care for Your Toddler's Baby Teeth

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toddler brushing
Getty Images/Camille Tokerud
Question: How to Care for Your Toddler's Baby Teeth
Do I need to brush my toddler’s teeth? What else should I do to care for them?
Answer: There's an assumption among parents sometimes that we don't need to worry about baby teeth. After all, they will fall out and be replaced by adult teeth in just a few years. But starting a good oral hygiene plan early is important to your child's overall health. First of all, it sets up good habits: if you start your child with regular brushing by 12 months, you won't have to get her used to the habit later on. Secondly, tooth decay is a real concern for babies and toddlers, and cavities (even in teeth that will fall out soon) can cause severe pain and other health problems for your child. If your child doesn't regularly have his teeth cleaned or checked by a dentist, he may end up with numerous cavities that need to be treated. As the New York Times reported in 2012, dentists sometimes need to put children as young as two under general anesthesia in order to fill cavities or perform root canals. That puts your child at risk for emotional trauma and injuries associated with anesthesia.

So the short answer is, yes, you do need to clean your toddler's teeth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends brushing her teeth at least twice a day (after breakfast and before bed). You can use infant toothpaste, or, if your doctor recommends using fluoride apply a slight smidgeon to the brush. Consider using a tot brush (compare prices), which the Academy of General Dentistry (AGA) recommends over traditional toothbrushes because toddlers can use the child-sized brushes safely themselves without risk of over inserting or swallowing them.

Beyond brushing your child's teeth, dentists and physicians recommend taking your child to see a dentist by his first birthday or soon after. During this visit, the dentist will check for the presence of cavities and signs of oral diseases, which can cause lifelong health problems that affect the mouth and other parts of the body.

When you take your toddler to visit the dentist, you will likely be able to stay with her. Often, the dentists will have you hold your child while he examines her teeth. The dentists may also suggest dietary or lifestyle changes that can help protect your child's oral health. These include recommendations such as:

  • Do not give your toddler a bottle when he's going to sleep since the liquid can pool in the mouth and contribute to tooth decay
  • Avoid regularly giving your child juice or sugary drinks that promote cavities
  • Transition your child from a bottle or sippy cup to a regular cup that he uses only at meal times or while sitting; again, this will cut down on the amount of liquid that collects around the teeth
  • Limit snacks to one or two times per day and cut down on the amount of sugary sweets offered at those times
  • If your tap water is fluorinated, replace bottled water with it; if your tap water is not treated with fluoride, your dentists may recommend a fluoride supplement
  • begin flossing your child's teeth. Using floss sticks instead of string or dental tape may make it easier to reach back teeth (and help you avoid getting bitten)
  • Do not let your child use utensils that have been in your own mouth since you could pass on saliva that has cavity-causing bacteria
If you're worried about how you'll get a toothbrush into your child's mouth and do a good job, don't be too concerned. Toddlers are often happy to have their teeth brushed and may actually ask to use their toothbrush whenever they are in the bathroom and see it. For those who are reluctant, you can make it more fun by choosing a toothbrush with their favorite character or setting up a tooth brushing chart.
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