“Nope, no cavities today!” Hearing this good news from your child’s dentist can feel like a major achievement. A miracle, even. But it’s in between those office visits where the real magic happens. To learn which daily, at-home habits are most essential, we reviewed a few basics in pediatric dental hygiene, as recommended by the American Dental Association (ADA), and found some myth-busting reasons why early dental care sets up your child for a happy and healthy future.
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Begin Oral Care at Birth
Did you know your kids’ dental care routine can begin before they even start teething? During the first few days after birth, the ADA recommends cleaning your infant’s mouth by gently wiping their gums after each feeding. You can do this with washcloth or a gauze pad that’s clean and moist. This helps remove plaque that can harm erupting teeth—and those baby teeth matter.
“Nature’s braces,” as they’re sometimes called, hold the spots in the jaws for the permanent teeth growing underneath, and those permanent teeth can drift if a baby tooth is lost too early. Years down the line, this can lead to crooked or crowded teeth. Baby teeth are essential for helping a child chew and speak and even smile—and we live for those baby smiles.
Finish Bottles Before Bedtime
To help prevent what’s called baby bottle tooth decay, the ADA recommends never putting your baby to bed with a bottle in their mouth. Otherwise, their teeth will be bathed in sugary liquids—milk, formula, fruit juice—for a prolonged time period.
That potential tooth decay most often appears in the upper front teeth but could be any teeth, and if severe decay develops, it’s possible their baby teeth cannot be saved and will need to be extracted by a dentist.
Schedule That First Dental Visit
Don’t wait to plan for a first appointment with your dentist. But when’s the right time? The sweet spot for a “well-baby checkup” is within six months after your child’s first tooth appears but before they turn 1 year old. Why so early? Because with teeth comes the potential for cavities.
A dentist will examine your child’s jaw and teeth for development and offer their expert, personalized advice on the best oral care, pacifier use, teething and how to brush your child’s teeth.
Start Brushing with Toothpaste
Again, this milestone begins after that first tooth comes through the gums, and using toothpaste with fluoride is key. This mineral, called “nature’s cavity fighter,” has been shown to reduce cavities by 25% and repair weakened enamel. (The ADA also recommends drinking water with fluoride.)
The amount of toothpaste you’ll need to use depends upon your child’s age—and it doesn’t take much. For children 3 years and older, you only need a pea-sized amount. For under 3, it’s a smear the size of a single grain of rice.
Brush Twice Daily for Two Minutes
For this, you’ll need to supervise your child’s brushing at least until age 6 or brush for them. But brushing morning and night, for two minutes each, or as directed by your dentist, is no small feat.
And so how do you supervise? Lead by example and brush your teeth at the same time, too. Crank up the music for a two-minute dance party while brushing or reward their good behavior with a sticker chart—whatever works for them. A sure way to get your kid excited is letting them pick out their own toothbrush and toothpaste.
The ADA says that manual or powered toothbrushes can be used effectively. Electric brushes for 3 and older are often equipped with a 2-minute timer with 30-second pulses so you can be prompted to start and stop when the time’s up. (Beware of heavily marketed mouthpiece toothbrushes, which have not been endorsed by the ADA or widely tested to show its effectiveness.)
Start Flossing When the Teeth Touch
As soon as your child has two teeth that can touch, it’s time to begin flossing to help remove food particles and plaque from between the teeth and under the gum line. Floss before or after brushing—the ADA says it doesn’t matter when so much as that it does happen, ideally, once daily.
Traditional string floss can be difficult for kids (and adults, too!) to wrangle, so try plastic flossers or floss picks. These are single-use items, and so must be thrown away after use each day. And if your gums bleed regularly while flossing, tell your dentist.
Use Mouthwash for Age 6 & Up
While not intended to replace brushing and flossing, this additional step in your daily routine can help bring peace of mind that every crevice in their mouth is reached. Kids need to be able to swish and spit, so if your child tends to swallow toothpaste, wait a while longer to introduce mouthwash.
All ADA-Accepted mouthwashes for children are alcohol-free. If your child finds mint too intense, try experimenting with bubble gum or other fruity flavors. Be sure not to eat or drink for 30 minutes after rinsing.
Find a downloadable shopping list of ADA-Accepted products for parents at mouthhealthy.org/seal or look for products on shelves with the ADA Seal of Acceptance.