How to Help Your Children Have Healthy Teeth


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    Are you worried about whether you’re doing everything you can to set your child up for excellent dental health? Do you want to see a bright, healthy smile every time you look at your child?

    To learn all about your child’s dental health, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll let you know why it’s important, what you can expect to see as far as dental development at various ages, and tips to keep those teeth clean.

    Why Dental Health Matters

    Everybody loves a white, healthy-looking smile. Having teeth that are attractive and well taken care of is a big confidence booster and it can positively impact a child’s self-esteem.

    Likewise, teeth that are clearly not well taken care of can make a child feel bad about themselves and less likely to want to smile.

    Take Note

    Statistics have shown that more than a third of 12-year-olds are embarrassed to smile because of their teeth.

    But aside from the cosmetic purposes, parents have other compelling reasons to stay on top of their child’s dental health.

    With my child, I made cleaning teeth a priority from the first day they sprouted out of their gums. We carefully brushed those teeth twice a day as we were instructed to, and I took her in for regular dental appointments.

    Her teeth looked healthy, clean and strong. I felt pretty awesome about the job I was doing, until one of her dental appointments revealed a cavity on one of her back teeth.

    Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite as confident about my skills — not only had she developed a cavity on my watch, but I didn’t even know it was there to begin with. The dentist said she had some ridges on one of her back teeth that made brushing it thoroughly more difficult.

    He took care of the cavity and sent us on our way.

    That was an important lesson for me that day — cavities can happen even when you’re trying your best. And if you don’t make sure your child brushes their teeth regularly and thoroughly, their risk of developing cavities skyrockets.

    How Widespread the Problem Is

    From 2011 to 2014, statistics showed that 18.6 percent of children from the ages of 5 to 19 had untreated cavities (1).

    Even more than that have had cavities at some point.

    Of children who are ages 2 to 11, 42 percent have had cavities in their baby teeth (2). The average number of baby teeth affected for those children is 1.6, and for decayed surfaces on those teeth, the number is even higher at 3.6.

    If a cavity develops, it can be painful for a child and expensive for the parent, especially if they don’t have dental insurance. It’s no coincidence that children from lower-income families tend to have more untreated cavities.

    While some parents may be dismissive of children having cavities in their baby teeth because they’ll eventually fall out anyway, those cavities can still be painful.

    If a child is developing multiple cavities, it’s obvious their oral health care needs to be improved.


    It’s best to nail down a great dental health care plan that works for your child before their permanent teeth come in. That way, you can be assured their adult teeth will have all the quality attention they need to remain healthy.

    But some children, unfortunately, don’t ramp up their efforts enough when it comes to permanent teeth. Untreated decay happens to 8 percent of children, ages 6 to 11, on their permanent teeth.

    The problem can impact more than a child’s confidence and their parent’s pocketbook too. It can also impact a child’s learning.

    Take Note

    Each year, children lose a collective 51 million school hours to dental-related illnesses (3).

    Understanding Kids’ Teeth

    A child’s mouth changes rapidly as they grow. Once those teeth start coming in, you’ll face a variety of issues and challenges that are unique to that specific age.

    Let’s look at what you can expect to see at each stage of development for your child.

    Children 0 to 3 Years Old

    • Changes you’ll see: Before this time period is up, you can expect to see 20 baby teeth pop through. They’ll need them for chewing as they transition to solid foods, so it’s imperative you take good care of them. They’ll also use them as they speak and they serve as placeholders in the jaw for the adult teeth that will eventually come through.
    • Common issues: As your baby starts getting teeth, your biggest challenge will be teething pain. It’s a universal struggle for both parents and children. Buckle up because it may be a bumpy ride, but it helps to remember this phase will pass pretty quickly. Avoid using amber teething necklaces as they are a choking and strangulation hazard.
    • What you should do to protect their oral health: Once you see teeth pop through, start taking care of them by wiping them down with a soft, damp washcloth after feedings. You may also use a soft-bristled children’s toothbrush and a rice-grain-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste to clean their teeth.
    • Risks at this stage: Tooth decay caused by bottles is a real threat. Make sure you never let your child fall asleep with a bottle of juice or milk in their mouth. Take it out as soon as they fall asleep (4). Another risk is continuing to suck on a pacifier too long. Discontinue pacifier use by 24 months of age.
    • If your tap water is not fluoridated your dentist or pediatrician may recommend fluoride drops

    Children 3 to 6 Years Old

    • Changes you’ll see: Some of your child’s baby teeth will fall out during this timeframe, and some permanent teeth will take their place. Another change is that your child will start to take a more active role in keeping their teeth clean.
    • Common issues: Thumbsucking is an issue you might have to deal with. Not every child sucks their thumb, but if they do, they may not stop doing it until they are up to 4 years old (5).
    • What you should do to protect their oral health: You’ll have to break them of the thumbsucking habit as soon as possible, and that can be much more difficult than stopping pacifier use. You can’t take their thumbs away like you can a pacifier. You should also make sure you are brushing their teeth twice a day, for two minutes at a stretch, with fluoride toothpaste.
    • Risks at this stage: Cavities continue to be a real risk at this age. Ideally, you’ll still supervise their brushing sessions to make sure they’re doing it correctly. They may not like how thorough you are with your assistance, but brushing twice a day is much better at preventing cavities than just brushing once. Chewable fluoride tablets may be recommended if your local tap water is un-fluorinated.

    Children 6 to 12 Years Old

    • Changes you’ll see: Your child is going to start sprouting more of their adult teeth during this time frame. For a while, you’ll see a cute mixture of a little child’s face with some oversized teeth in their mouths.
    • Common issues: Braces are one of the biggest issues you’ll see at this age. As your child’s permanent teeth start to outnumber the baby teeth, their dentist will have a good idea about whether they’ll need braces or not. A generation or two ago, it wasn’t uncommon for children to get their first braces until right before high school. But these days, children are getting them much younger, even sometimes when they are still 7 or 8 years old.
    • What you should do to protect their oral health: If your dentist tells you your child should see an orthodontist, you should book the appointment and go. You may think it’s too young for a visit like that, but going early could potentially reduce the amount of time your child needs braces for.
    • Risks at this stage: Tooth decay remains a huge risk, especially once your child starts to brush their teeth independently. You should continue helping until they are at least 8-10 years old. After that, you should occasionally inspect their teeth to make sure they look clean and that they’re doing a good job.
    • Chewable fluoride tablets may be recommended by your dentist or pediatrician if your tap water is un-fluorinated.

    Children Ages 12 to 17 Years Old

    • Changes you’ll see: Your child’s remaining permanent teeth will come in during this time period, with the exception of wisdom teeth. Those don’t usually come through until later teens or early 20s, if they erupt at all.
    • Common issues: Cavities will continue to be an issue with this age group. As they become more independent and spend more time away from home and with their friends, they’ll be eating more snacks away from your watchful eye. If they’re like most teenagers, those snacks aren’t going to be the healthiest selections for their body or their teeth.
    • What you should do to protect their oral health: Stay on top of them about their brushing habits, and try to limit sweets when they are with you. Teenagers love sugar, which can make their risk for cavities skyrocket during this stage of their life. Make sure you take them in regularly to see their dentist, which can be a challenge with the busy schedule they’ll likely have.
    • Risks at this stage: Another thing parents need to watch for is protecting the mouths of children in sports. A mouthguard can keep your child’s teeth, tongue, and gums safe while playing the more physical sports, like basketball, football, soccer, and hockey (6).

    21 Oral Health Tips for Kids

    Sometimes the trickiest part of properly taking care of your kid’s teeth is simply knowing what to do. Once you know what you should be doing, it only takes a few minutes per day to make sure you’re on track.

    Here are some tips to help you and your child.

    1. Oral Hygiene Starts Before Any Teeth Break Through

    To keep your baby’s gums as clean as possible and to get them used to the sensation of having their mouth taken care of, begin wiping off their gums after every meal even before they have teeth. You can do this by using a damp, warm washcloth (7).

    This will stop bacteria from accumulating on your baby’s gums. A gentle swipe is all you need.

    2. Continuing Breastfeeding as You Normally Would

    Breast milk can cause cavities, just as formula does. But because the method of feeding your baby is different between the bottle and the breast, it seems to be more difficult for breastfed babies to get cavities than those who are bottle fed (8).

    Because breast milk enters past the teeth in a baby’s mouth, there is less contact than there is with a bottle nipple and therefore less chance for damage to teeth.

    3. Take Your Child to a Dentist by Their First Birthday

    A visit to the dentist by age 1 is a good idea because it will help children become comfortable with the dentist, and that trip may help spot any potential problems early.

    Getting early preventative care may also help your bottom line. One report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows parents can save up to 40 percent on dental care during a five-year timeframe if their child visits a dentist by the time they’re 5 years old (9).

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    4. Use a Toothbrush as Soon as Teeth Erupt

    The reason for wanting to use a toothbrush right away when teeth arrive is twofold.

    • You want to protect your baby’s teeth from decay by brushing them.
    • Brushing them as soon as they pop through the gums sets your baby up with good habits — they’ll understand as they get older how important it is if they recognize you do it two times a day without fail.

    You should brush your child’s teeth twice a day with a soft-bristled infant’s toothbrush. You have to make sure it’s age-appropriate because otherwise, the toothbrush will be too big for your child’s mouth.

    Here are a couple of tips about brushing your baby’s teeth:

    • Be gentle while you do it — you shouldn’t be pressing down too hard.
    • Brush the front and the back of each tooth.
    • Use the right amount of toothpaste.

    5. Add in Some Fluoride

    The trick with fluoride toothpaste is knowing how much to add for each age bracket. You don’t want to use too much.

    Younger kids haven’t quite mastered the art of spitting so they are more likely to swallow their toothpaste instead of spitting it out. The problem with that is that fluoride, when too much is ingested, can cause brown spots on the teeth and possibly stomach upset (10).

    You’ll want just a rice-grain-sized amount for 1 to 3-year-olds and a pea-sized amount after that.

    Your dentist or pediatrician may prescribe fluoride drops or tablets if your water source does not contain fluoride.

    6. Prevent Baby Bottle Decay

    When a baby gets into their toddler years, it gets harder to yank their bottles away from them. Instead of just drinking it, they like to cling to their bottles and carry them around everywhere.

    Some toddlers even like to use them as a way to lull themselves to sleep at night.

    But as tempting as it may be to let them do that, you shouldn’t. Prolonged exposure to the sugars in milk can set the stage for cavities.

    Pro Tip

    Give them their bottle at regular times, and if it seems they’re playing with it or using it as a security blanket at night, take it away.

    You should also keep sugary juices out of those bottles. And for extra protection, try to get your child to ditch the bottle as soon as you can — the sooner they are weaned off of it, the better it is for their teeth.

    7. Begin Flossing as Soon as Teeth Touch

    Flossing is an important part of dental hygiene because it can reach where your toothbrush can’t. It can help prevent gum disease and tooth decay (11).

    Flossing should be done at least once a day. If you only do it once, try to do it at night so you don’t allow all that food your child has eaten during the day to sit on their teeth overnight.

    8. Beware of Pacifier Effects on Dental Development

    Pacifiers can be a handy tool for soothing a baby, and they can cut down on your baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But they can also cause some major dental headaches.

    If your child continues to use pacifiers past the age of 2, you need to work on getting them to give it up, by limiting their usage of it. That habit needs to be a thing of the past before your child’s permanent teeth come in because you don’t want to cause them to shift out of place.

    Pro Tip

    If your child can’t seem to handle the separation anxiety with it at first, you can start by using it only at bedtime and nap time. At least your baby will be able to soothe themselves to sleep that way, which will make things easier for both of you.

    9. Be Cautious About Sippy Cup Choices

    Sippy cups aren’t a great idea from a dentist’s perspective. That’s because a sippy cup, especially when used excessively, can lead to crooked teeth.

    But they can also lead to tooth decay if children are permitted to sip continuously throughout the day when there are sugary drinks, like juice, in the cup.

    If your child insists on using a sippy cup throughout the day, fill it with plain water so their teeth won’t be exposed all day to sugar. Save the juice for special occasions or meals.

    Baby boy drinking from sippy cup

    10. Water is Best for Toddlers

    Kids love juice and soda, and who can blame them? Those sugar-laden drinks are pretty irresistible, even to adults. But the drink of choice should be plain old water.

    But those drinks are really bad for your child’s teeth, so you need to be the adult about it and put your foot down. It’s easiest if they never get attached to those drinks to begin with, so use them sparingly, if at all.

    11. Know the Signs of Early Decay

    If you learn how to spot decay signs early, your child has a much better chance at having a healthy mouth.

    Here are some common signs of decay in children (12):

    • White spots can show up on your baby’s teeth before there are any other signs of trouble.
    • A light brown color signifies an early cavity.
    • From there, that brown spot will continue to get darker.
    • A hole in the tooth may even be apparent.
    • There may be sensitivity to cold and sweets too.

    12. Childproof Your Home

    Many children lose their teeth or injure them by hitting their mouths against furniture. While you won’t be able to prevent every accident, you can take some simple steps to make things a bit safer in your home for your child.

    Here are some things you can do:

    • Remove rugs from around coffee tables or harder surfaces — your child can trip on the rug and bang their tooth in a fall.
    • Keep the stairways closed off with a baby gate for younger children.
    • Don’t let your child run around the house while drinking from a sippy cup.
    • Tell your child to avoid running while inside the house — if they want to run, it’s safer to do that in the backyard or in a park.

    13. Teach Your Toddler Healthy Habits

    When you have a child, they’re going to learn not only from what you tell them, but from what they see you do as well. You’re going to be their most important role model — they’ll learn both good and bad habits from you.

    Here are some things you can do to set a good example for your kids.

    • Help your toddler brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes each time.
    • Make sure your kid sees you brush your teeth too.
    • Set a routine for everyone in the family, including any older children.
    • Don’t make exceptions to your routine or dental hygiene rules once you have them in place.

    Little girl brushing her teeth in the bathroom

    14. Teach the Right Brushing Technique

    As with most skills you work on, technique is everything — even with toothbrushing. Here is what you can do to ensure you’re making the most out of your tooth brushing time.

    • Keep the toothbrush against the gums using a 45-degree angle.
    • Brush the teeth with back and forth strokes along the front, back, and top of your teeth, making sure you don’t skip any.
    • While you should brush the tops of your teeth, you want to avoid being too rough on your gums.
    • Make sure you pay special attention to the backs of your front and bottom teeth — that area of the bottom teeth is especially prone to tartar build-up. You can use the top part of your bristles to hit this area.
    • Make sure your child brushes the full two minutes recommended by dentists — some electric toothbrushes have music that play this long to let kids know when they are able to quit.

    Little girl brushing her teeth in bathroom

    15. Keep Supervision Up Until It’s No Longer Needed

    Kids don’t do the most thorough job in the world with their tasks — just look at anything they have tried to clean. They give it a halfway decent effort, but they need a hands-on approach if they’re going to learn how to do a really great job with it.

    To get the best results and to ward off tooth decay, you should supervise your child’s brushing until they are at least 8 to 10. At that point, you can give your child a chance to prove themself.

    Cut back your inspections to a weekly basis at first and see if they’re doing alright.

    16. Make It Fun

    Kids love to have fun and the more brushing their teeth feels like that, the happier they’ll be to do it. Let them call some of the shots and have the gear they want by letting them choose the characters for their toothbrushes and the flavor of toothpaste they’ll use.

    Give rewards based on their performance, consistency, and their enthusiasm. The rewards shouldn’t be candy — that would be counterproductive.

    Things like stickers, a walk in the park, or an afternoon at the movie theater can go a long way toward keeping your child on track.

    A little bribe here or there can go a long way — and keep you from having large dental bills. After all, would you rather fork a lot of your money over to the dentist, or a little bit of it to your child?

    17. Inspire Them With a Song

    Use a child’s natural love of music to get them excited about brushing their teeth. There are all kinds of songs about the importance of brushing that will have them tapping their toes as they scrub their teeth clean (13).

    There are also all kinds of entertaining videos online that incorporate music and messages your kids will love.

    18. Go In For Regular Dental Checkups

    It can be a pain to take off of work to take your child in to see the dentist. But that effort will be worth it when you get to see your child’s bright, healthy smile year after year.

    You should plan to take your child to the dentist every six months. They’ll clean your child’s teeth each time and make sure they are on track with their development (14).

    Look for a dentist who frequently works with children. That way, they’ll have a good chairside manner that will make your child comfortable.

    Start Them Young

    Getting a child comfortable with a dentist now will also benefit them later in life. They’ll be less likely to have any kind of phobia or fears about visiting dentists.

    19. Promote a Healthy Diet and Snacks

    To keep your child’s teeth in tiptop shape, you should put an emphasis on keeping healthy foods and drinks in your house. Someday when your child is older, they’ll make their own food choices, but for now, you’re the one buying groceries.

    That means you have total control. By keeping lots of fresh fruit and veggies on hand for snacks and less junk food, everyone in your household will be healthier.

    20. Treats and Sugary Foods Are Banned Until After Dinner

    This is a good rule to institute at your house for both younger and older kids. As a mom, you’ll hear requests for junk food constantly, whether you’re driving past a store or enjoying a night at home.

    Most homes contain treats of some sort and you’ll likely want them too sometimes. It’s not realistic to never have a bit of junk here or there.

    But you can minimize your teeth’s exposure to sugar by limiting the hours of the day that sugar is allowed.

    21. Keep Them Protected While Playing Sports

    A mouthguard may not be something every coach requires for their athletes, but as your child gets older and is more involved with contact sports, it’s a good idea to invest in them. For just a few dollars, you’ll be buying a lot of peace of mind.

    It’s a Journey

    As parents, we’re never going to be perfect. All our food choices won’t be great, and we’re all prone to eating junk food from time to time.

    But we can take comfort in the fact that parenthood isn’t about a single moment or decision. It’s all about consistency.

    If you make the effort to put in just a few minutes a day when it comes to your child’s dental needs, they’ll have a healthy smile for years to come. And your heart will melt every time they flash it at you.

    What are your favorite tricks to use while taking care of your child’s teeth? We’d love to hear about them, and if you know another mom who can use the advice we offered here, please share this with her.

    Headshot of Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

    Reviewed by

    Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

    Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett is a veteran board-certified pediatrician with three decades of experience, including 19 years of direct patient clinical care. She currently serves as a medical consultant, where she works with multiple projects and clients in the area of pediatrics, with an emphasis on children and adolescents with special needs.
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