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5 Tips for Healthy Little Smiles from a Pediatric Dentist

Ask a dentist.

As a relatively new mom (and Pediatric Dentist), I am frequently asked when parents should take their young children to the dentist for the first time. Until recently, a person’s family doctor or pediatrician recommended that our children see a dentist by age three. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and the American Dental Association followed those guidelines. Now we have new recommendations - when your child’s first tooth appears or no later than your child’s first birthday, they should see the dentist; basically, age one at the latest.

If I were not a Pediatric Dentist, given my tenacious two-year old’s personality, I’d think to myself, “what on earth are you going to do with my one-year-old, who barely has any teeth?” And even now, I do think to myself, “there is NO WAY that my toddler will sit in the dental chair and allow anyone to do anything without a complete meltdown.” At one, most parents are usually just getting rid of the bottle, maybe still breastfeeding, and likely starting to introduce solid foods if they hadn’t done so six months ago. At two, our kids are hit or miss, sometimes good and sometimes bad (as my daughter likes to refer to herself as “Good Eve” or “Bad Eve.”)

But trust me, as a Pediatric Dentist and parent, there are no judgments at these early visits. We, as professionals, understand these visits are strictly for “anticipatory guidance.” What this means in simple terms is that these visits are intended to discuss preventive behaviors like oral hygiene, habits (thumb/pacifier, to name a few), diet, and to examine whether your children are cavity prone. 

Here are 5 things you can do to take care of your little one's smile long before their first tooth appears.

1. Clean your infant's mouth and gums regularly with a soft infant toothbrush or cloth and water. 

2. Children older than six months need fluoride supplements if their drinking water does not contain enough fluoride. Fluoride supplementation in infants has been shown to reduce tooth decay by as much as 50%! 

Infant sitting on the ground.

3. Babies should be weaned from the bottle by 12-14 months of age. Some guidelines recommend discontinuing breastfeeding once the first baby tooth appears, and other sources of nutrition have been introduced. In my opinion, how long we breastfeed is a personal choice. Breastfeeding alone does not cause cavities. It is when breastfeeding is combined with other food and drinks that cause bacterial growth. If you do breastfeed after introducing other foods and beverages, try to make sure the baby does not fall asleep while breastfeeding and wipe her mouth out with a wet cloth afterward. Because this is considered a “high risk” behavior, I would recommend visiting your pediatric dentist more frequently (like every three to six months) to keep an eye on things.

4. Parents should use a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste (think of the size of a grain of rice) to brush baby teeth twice daily as soon as they erupt. Once children are between three and six years old, increase it to a pea-size dollop.

Sonicare toothbrush

5. Remember, the rule of thumb is that kids do not have the manual dexterity to brush their teeth by themselves until they can tie their shoes. So please help your kiddos and take a turn and go over it for them. It is correlated - the longer you brush and floss their teeth for them, the fewer cavities they will get!

Kids and cavities

Cavities are caused by germs that are passed from adult to child. Babies are born without the bacteria that causes “caries,” the disease that leads to cavities. They get it from spit that is passed from their caregiver’s mouth to their own. Caregivers pass on these germs by sharing saliva. For example, when you share spoons, test foods before feeding it to your baby, or place your baby’s pacifier in your mouth, that’s how the bacteria are passed. These germs can start the process that causes cavities even before babies have teeth. But it is one of the few “diseases” that are 100% preventable. So, it’s important to avoid sharing saliva with your baby right from the start – especially if you have had cavities in the past. This is just one of the many fun facts discussed at your child’s first visit.

Dr Bienstock examing child's mouth.

The value of taking your kids to the dentist

A recent study in the Journal of Pediatric Dentistry found that children who have their first dental visit before age two are less likely to require restorative and emergency visits. So, for those more frugal parents, the one-year dental visit can save you money. Another study demonstrated that children who visited the dentist before age one had 40% lower dental costs during their first five years than children who did not. Also, seeing a Pediatric Dentist by the time the first baby tooth pops up enables the child to begin a lifelong preventive dental care program to minimize tooth decay and cavities. You could be saving your child’s smile just by bringing them in before age one!

Tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease of childhood, more than four times more prevalent than asthma. National surveys report that more than 50% of children still experience tooth decay in their primary (adult) teeth. Early dental visits can prevent suffering, reduce dollars spent on future surgical and emergency dental services, and maximize the chances for children to grow up with healthier, happier smiles. Click here to find a trusted local dentist today!