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Dental Care for Children

Why is dental care important?

Tooth decay can cause many problems for children. If you teach your child proper dental care early, you can help prevent cavities, lost teeth, and pain for your child. Avoiding sugary foods and seeing the dentist regularly beginning at 12 months old can also help prevent tooth decay.

How can I help my child?

Bring your baby to a dentist no later than 12 months of age to establish a dental home. This gives you a resource for your child’s oral health as well as a trusted place to contact should a mouth injury happen. Pediatric dentists are specially trained to address the dental needs of babies through young adults.

Babies can get tooth decay from having the sugar from milk or juice sit in their mouths for long periods of time.

  • Don’t let your child walk around with a bottle of milk, juice or other sweetened drink all day.
  • Don’t let your child lie down with a bottle to go to sleep.

You can start teaching your child about brushing as soon as your child gets his first teeth.

  • Wipe your baby's gums with a damp washcloth. Once the teeth start to come through, start using a soft baby toothbrush.
  • Use a child-sized toothbrush with soft bristles. Get a new toothbrush every 3 months, or earlier if the bristles become flattened.
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste regularly. Fluoride strengthens the enamel on teeth and helps prevent cavities. For babies until age 3, a small smear of toothpaste is all that is necessary. For children aged 3 to 6, put a pea-sized amount on the toothbrush and brush your child's teeth after every meal and before bed. If your child swallows the toothpaste, this small amount will not hurt him.
  • Choose a fluoride toothpaste flavor that your child likes. Many adult toothpastes have flavorings that may irritate a child’s mouth.
  • Once all the teeth are touching, start flossing. Slowly teach your child to floss and try to make it fun for your child. Plastic flossers can be very helpful for children.

By the age of 7 your child should be able to brush his teeth alone. By age 8, he should be able to floss his own teeth. It is recommended that you supervise your child with toothbrushing and flossing until they are 10 years old.

When should my child visit the dentist?

Your child can get cavities as soon as teeth appear in the mouth. It is important for your child to see the dentist while he still has baby teeth. Baby teeth help children chew food, speak clearly, and make space for their permanent teeth. Even though your child will lose the baby teeth, taking good care of the baby teeth develops the habits that will protect the permanent teeth when they come in. Permanent teeth start to come in at about 5 to 6 years of age.

A child should see a dentist by the time they are 12 months old. They should then have exams every 6 months. A health condition such as Down syndrome or lung problems that require oxygen can cause dental problems. If your child has a health condition, check with your dentist about the kind of dental care your child may need.

Ask your dentist about sealants or fluoride treatments. Sealants fill in the pits and natural grooves that may hold food and bacteria and lead to decay. Fluoride makes the outer part of the tooth stronger and protects it from decay.

Your child should also go to the dentist:

  • As soon as you or your child notice a problem with the teeth or gums
  • Before he or she starts playing contact sports
  • If there are dark spots in the pits or natural grooves of the teeth
  • If the upper and lower teeth do not come together correctly
  • If your child takes an antibiotic such as tetracycline that can stain teeth if it is used before the age of 9 years

How can I afford dental care for my child?

Some health insurance programs, such as Medicaid, may cover dental care. If you are concerned about paying for the dentist, talk to your healthcare provider or contact a local dental society about free or low cost dental care.

Written by Robert Brayden, MD, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-01-12
Last reviewed: 2015-01-12
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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