Children usually get their first teeth between 6 and 10 months of age, beginning a lifetime of dental care. When you help your baby to take the best care of their developing teeth and take them to visit the dentist regularly, you could be setting them up for good oral health for life.
That's why it's important to know how to look after your child's teeth and gums right from the start – even before they start teething. Read this guide to learn:
- How to brush your baby's teeth
- The best food and drink for infants' and toddlers' teeth
- When you should take a baby to the dentist
Brushing baby's teeth
When to start cleaning baby teeth
Tooth decay is a serious problem in Australia, especially for kids. Helping your little ones get into good oral hygiene habits as early as possible can help protect their teeth from decay as they grow up.
Even before your baby gets their first tooth, you can prepare them for the experience of tooth brushing later by gently wiping their gums with a damp cloth.
When their teeth do start to erupt, they should be cleaned twice a day, just like yours. You can use a small child's toothbrush or continue to wipe with the damp cloth if they're more comfortable with that.
Do babies need toothpaste?
No. Until your baby is around 18 months old, you should clean their teeth using water only, unless their dentist advises otherwise.
From 18 months to around 6 years, toddlers and young children should use children's toothpaste with low fluoride, to lower the risk of fluorosis (staining of the teeth).
How to brush baby teeth
A baby's teeth should be brushed twice a day, preferably early in the morning and before you go to sleep. Other than that, the technique is a bit different to brushing older children's and adults' teeth.
Lie your baby down with their head in your lap so you can see clearly inside their mouth. Lift their lips and brush softly using a child's toothbrush or wet cloth with water in circular motions.
Make sure you clean all surfaces of every tooth – the front, back, chewing surface and the sides (if these aren't touching other teeth). You should also gently clean their gums.
Rinse their toothbrush after use and let it air dry. You should replace it every 3 months, after an illness or if it starts to look worn.
Should you floss baby teeth?
Yes. Flossing is an important part of everyday oral hygiene, as it helps to remove plaque that may be building up in places where their toothbrush can't reach.
It's recommended that you floss between your baby's teeth as soon as they grow 2 teeth next to each other.
Food and drink
Until around 6 months, milk is the only sustenance your baby needs. This may come from a breast or bottle, but breastfeeding is recommended for most mothers for its health benefits.
Breast milk contains calcium that helps your baby's teeth and bones to develop, but it also contains natural sugars. Like anything else containing sugar, the longer milk is in contact with your baby's teeth, the more chance it has to feed bacteria in plaque that cause tooth decay.
For this reason, you should avoid putting your baby to sleep while breastfeeding. Instead, remove them from the breast as soon as they've finished feeding to limit contact with sugars.
Infant formula also contains sugar, so you shouldn't let them sleep with a bottle in their mouth. Even when they stop drinking, milk may continue to drip onto their teeth or gums. Sleeping with a bottle is also considered hazardous as it may be a possible choking risk.
Dummies are safe to suck on while sleeping, but don't dip them in honey or other sweet flavours to try to make them tasty. This will expose your baby's teeth to sugar all the time they're asleep.
Best drinks for toddlers
From 6 to 12 months, babies can start to drink water from a cup in addition to breastmilk or formula. After their first birthday, they're usually ready to switch from mummy's milk to cow's milk. This should be full fat until they turn 2, after which you may prefer to use low-fat milk to help manage their weight.
Besides milk, water is the best drink for babies' teeth (and everyone else's teeth), as it's the best at keeping the mouth hydrated and rinsing away bacteria and leftover sugars. Tap water should be boiled for safety and left to cool before giving it to a baby.
If you live in a fluoridated area, like most Australians, your baby will get the benefits of fluoride from drinking tap water at a safe level to help protect their teeth.
Best foods for toddlers
Most babies can start eating solid (if smushy) food by around 6 months. You should feed your child a balanced diet rich in vitamins and nutrients to help them grow.
While their teeth will continue to benefit from breast milk or formula, other good sources of calcium include green, leafy vegetables, beans and fortified infant cereals and breads.
Contrary to what many parents think, babies and toddlers don't crave sweet food and drink. This is a learned behaviour that happens when they're exposed to sugary snacks, fruit juices, cordials and soft drinks that are the leading contributors to tooth decay in children.
Be aware that fruit juices that boast of containing 'no added sugar' already contain some natural sugar, so these aren't good for toddlers' teeth. Even sugar-free juices and soft drinks are bad for teeth, as they're highly acidic. This can wear down tooth enamel and accelerate decay.
Visiting the dentist
When should a baby see a dentist?
It's recommended that toddlers see a paediatric dentist around the time they turn 1 year old, or within 6 months of getting their first tooth (if that happens first).
This gives their dentist or oral health therapist a good idea of what their mouth and jaws will look like as they develop. They'll also be able to address any possible issues as soon as possible, before they get more serious.
What happens at a baby's first dentist appointment?
Dental visits for young children are gentle and mainly involve a visual inspection of your baby's teeth, gums and bite. Their dentist will also want to know any medical details that may be relevant. Dental x-rays are not taken for routine check-ups, unless their dentist needs to diagnose a possible problem.
As well as spotting any oral health issues, your child's dental visit is also a chance to ask any questions you have about caring for their teeth and what to expect. Your child's dentist can also demonstrate a good teeth brushing technique and give you advice about nutrition, thumb sucking, protection from dental injuries and anything else you want to know.
How often should a child visit the dentist?
Because babies' and toddlers' mouths are always changing, and tooth decay can strike fast when their teeth are so small, regular dental check-ups are important for catching early signs of oral health problems, orthodontic issues or other concerns.
The time interval between visits is based on your child's individual needs, which can vary from child to child. Your paediatric dentist will advise you about the visiting schedule they think is appropriate.
How do I calm my child before a dentist appointment?
To help your child feel relaxed before and during their dental visit, you should try to make it as positive and everyday an experience as possible.
Taking them along to your own appointment will help them get more familiar with the clinic environment. You can also talk about visiting the dentist when you're at home or tell them positive stories involving characters going to the dentist. This can all help to lower their risk of dental anxiety when they get older.
What if my baby needs a dental treatment?
Even if you take the best care of your baby's or toddler's teeth, there's a chance their dentist might spot signs of decay or another problem. If their teeth have already been damaged or have cavities, they may need a filling to repair it or, in severe cases, an extraction.
Your children's dentist will explain what the procedure involves so you know what to expect during and afterwards and can help your child to feel calm and supported.
Is my child eligible for free dental care?
Children in Australia whose parents receive Medicare payments may be eligible to receive free dental care up to $1,000 over 2 calendar years through the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS). This covers check-ups and most general treatments for kids from the ages of 2 to 17.
To find out if you're eligible, you can call Medicare on 132 011 or check the requirements on the Department of Human Services website. You may also be able to claim kids' dentistry on your health fund and can check if your dentist offers payment plans.
Do you need a kids dentist in Sydney CBD?
If you're looking for a new paediatric dentist or just need some advice, Sydney CBD Dental is here to help. Call our family dentists in Sydney CBD on (02) 9232 3900 or make an appointment online.
Raising Children Network. Dental care for babies [Online] 2019 [Accessed February 2020] Available from: https://raisingchildren.net.au/babies/health-daily-care/dental-care/dental-care-babies
Australian Dental Association. Babies [Online] 2016 [Accessed February 2020] Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Your-Dental-Health/Children-0-11/Babies
Better Health Channel. Dental checks for young children [Online] 2019 [Accessed February 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/dental-checks-for-young-children