Should you start brushing your baby's teeth as soon as they have them, or is it okay to wait? Do baby teeth really need to be brushed, if they're going to fall out eventually anyway? New parents often have lots of questions about their baby's teeth, and there are many different views on the matter.
A recent report from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the age parents started to brush their children's teeth varied from as soon as teeth appeared to later than 3 years, with around 80% of people starting later than is recommended for healthy teeth development.
To give your child the best start on a lifetime of good oral health, the earlier you start caring for their teeth and gums, the better.
Why are baby teeth important?
Your baby's first teeth may be temporary, but they can have permanent impacts on their lives.
As well as helping first-time eaters to chew and grind food properly, making sure they get all the nutrition their growing bodies need, teeth are also vital for speech development. By supporting the growth of their jaws and holding the space for their later adult teeth to come through, a child's first teeth can also help them to avoid alignment problems and the need for orthodontic treatment later.
Preventive care for baby teeth can also protect their adult teeth, which may be damaged by decay and other diseases and infections affecting the teeth above them. Bacteria building up on the teeth and gums can also cause other health problems in other parts of the body, which could contribute to illness or developing a lifelong health condition.
What harms a baby's teeth?
Baby teeth are more vulnerable to tooth decay and other damage than adult teeth, being smaller with a thinner protective enamel layer. Teeth can be affected by decay as soon as they erupt, so it's important to limit their contact with sugar in food and drink.
The bumps and falls that come with toddling can also put young children's teeth at risk of damage, or loss in severe cases. Although a dentist can sometimes reattach a permanent tooth after it's been knocked out, the same isn't possible for baby teeth.
When to brush my baby's teeth
Oral hygiene for your child can begin before they even get their first tooth. Gently wiping their gums after feeding will help to remove any sugars that may have been left behind. Once their teeth appear, these should be brushed using either a soft baby toothbrush or continuing to use a clean cloth or finger brush if your child is more comfortable that way.
Just like older children and adults, babies' teeth should be brushed twice a day, ideally early in the morning and before going to bed at night. Getting your child used to toothbrushing right from the start can help them to accept this routine without fuss as they grow up.
How do I brush my baby's teeth?
Babies' teeth should be cleaned using water only until they reach 18 months, at which point low-fluoride children's toothpaste can be introduced to help protect their teeth from plaque. You can brush a baby's teeth using a specially designed soft toothbrush, a clean cloth or gauze pad or a finger brush, depending on what they're most comfortable with.
For effective, fuss-free toothbrushing:
- Sit your child on your lap, facing forwards and holding their chin in one hand
- Moisten a toothbrush or other cleaning tool and gently brush each tooth in turn using circular motions
- Clean teeth on all three sides (front, back and biting surface)
- Gently clean their gums and the tip of their tongue
- Replace your baby's toothbrush every 3 months or sooner if you notice the bristles getting rough or out of shape
Toddlers who want to try brushing their own teeth should be encouraged and guided, as long as you complete the job yourself.
Is toothpaste safe for babies?
Fluoride in toothpaste helps to protect teeth against decay-causing bacteria by strengthening the outer enamel layer, but fluoride exposure should be limited in young children. There are no adverse health effects linked to fluoride, but accidentally swallowing toothpaste can sometimes cause discolouration of the teeth (fluorosis).
For this reason, it's generally advised that babies don't use toothpaste for the first 18 months. After this time, a pea-sized amount of low-fluoride children's toothpaste or a grain-sized amount of standard toothpaste can help to protect their teeth from cavities. Toothpaste may be used in normal amounts from around the age of 6.
Children should be taught not to swallow toothpaste, but there's no need to worry if it happens occasionally. Fluoride is also present in tap water and some baby foods at lower concentrations than toothpaste, which all helps to keep tooth decay at bay.
When can kids brush their own teeth?
Children don't have the dexterity to brush their teeth themselves until around the age of 7, but they should always be encouraged to learn with help and guidance from a grown-up. Even after this point, it's a good idea to brush your teeth together as a family, so your children can follow what you do and you can spot any brushing mistakes that could be leaving their teeth open to decay.
As soon as your child has a full set of teeth, they should spend 2 minutes brushing to make sure all surfaces are thoroughly cleaned. From around the age of 2, children can usually learn to spit out toothpaste rather than swallowing it.
How to encourage babies to brush
Some babies are perfectly happy to have their teeth cleaned, but not everyone's so lucky. Babies who are teething may find brushing uncomfortable, while others may have more sensitive gums or not enjoy the experience for other reasons. Rather than allowing your child's oral hygiene to be neglected, you should find ways to help make brushing their teeth more comfortable.
If it's the feel of the toothbrush they don't like, you can try a soft cloth or finger brush made from silicone or rubber. Giving them a toothbrush to play with outside of cleaning time will help to make it more familiar, and they may even put it in their mouth.
You can try to make their toothbrush more interesting by choosing one in attractive colours or designed like a favourite character. From around age 3, children may be ready for an electric toothbrush, which can incorporate engaging sounds and lights. Whatever type of brush you pick, brushing your teeth together as a family activity will help to establish it as a routine.
Other ways to protect your baby's teeth
Twice daily brushing is only the beginning of good oral hygiene. To give your little one the best chance of avoiding tooth decay, dentists also recommend:
- Flossing between baby's teeth as soon as they have 2 teeth in contact
- Don't put your baby to sleep with a bottle, as this can expose their teeth to sugar for long periods
- Don't dip a baby's dummy in sugar or honey to make it more appetising
- From around 6 months, babies can drink tap water containing fluoride that helps to protect their teeth
- Once your baby is on solids, feed them a balanced diet with limited sugar
- Bring your baby for their first dental appointment around the time of their 1st birthday
When should a baby see a dentist?
It's recommended that a child has their first check-up with a paediatric dentist either by their first birthday or within 6 months of growing their first tooth. It could help your child to feel even more comfortable in the clinic environment if you bring them along to your own check-ups and other dental appointments in-between their own.
Regular check-ups give dentists the chance to check that their teeth are developing normally, or to catch any problems such as tooth decay as early as possible when treatment is more likely to be effective. If you don't see a dentist until you think something's wrong with your baby's teeth, some damage might already have been done and your child might need a corrective treatment such as a filling.
As well as fixing problems with teeth, your child's dentist might also recommend preventive treatments such as fluoride application and fissure sealants to lower their risk of needing other treatments in the future. Your child's check-up is also your chance to ask any questions or discuss any concerns you have and to get professional advice about taking care of their teeth.
See a family dentist in Brisbane
If your child is due for a check-up or you want to see to a local dentist for any other reason, Face Value Dental's family dentists in Brisbane have 5 convenient locations.
Thornton-Evans G, Junger ML, Lin M, Wei L, Espinoza L, Beltran-Aguilar E. Use of Toothpaste and Toothbrushing Patterns Among Children and Adolescents — United States, 2013–2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:87–90. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6804a3
Healthdirect. How your baby's teeth develop [Online] 2017 [Accessed November 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/how-your-babys-teeth-develop
Healthdirect. Dental care for children [Online] 2017 [Accessed November 2020] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dental-care-for-children
Better Health Channel. Toothbrushing - children [Online] 2019 [Accessed November 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/toothbrushing-children
Better Health Channel. Dental checks for young children [Online] 2019 [Accessed November 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dental-checks-for-young-children