February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. We asked the spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Joel Berg, D.D.S., M.S., to provide guidance for parents on caring for young smiles. Dr. Berg says it’s just as important to take babies, toddlers, and older children to the dentist for preventive care as it is to take them to the pediatrician.
Parent & Child: When should a parent start brushing her child’s teeth?
Dr. Joel Berg: Before her first tooth comes in. Gently massage her gums with a damp cloth or a soft child’s toothbrush. That way, when her teeth start to come in (around 6 months), you can start brushing them right away and it will be expected and uneventful.
P&C: How often should she brush?
Berg: Ideally you should brush your child’s teeth after every feeding, but certainly twice a day — in the morning and at night. The most important time is at night, before bed. When a child is asleep, the flow of saliva, which helps to dilute the plaque, is reduced.
P&C: Can a baby get cavities even before she eats solid foods?
Berg: Yes. Teeth immediately get covered with plaque, which contains bacteria that [eventually] create a cavity using sugar from food. Cow’s milk, breast milk, and juice all contain sugar.
P&C: Is it safe to use toothpaste when brushing a baby’s teeth?
Berg: Yes. Use only a tiny bit — about the size of a lentil. Use fluoridated toothpaste, which strengthens teeth. Look for varieties made for babies.
P&C: At what age should parents add flossing to their child’s oral care?
Berg: As soon as back teeth start to come in. Both sets of molars are usually in by age 2 1/2. The sides of those teeth touch, and it’s easy for plaque to get trapped at that contact point. We know it’s difficult, but we recommend that parents try to floss those teeth daily.
P&C: When should a child first visit the dentist?
Berg: Soon after her first tooth erupts, but no later than her first birthday.
P&C: How will a parent know when his child is ready to brush his teeth on his own?
Berg: Parents often give their children too much leeway when it comes to brushing. There’s a higher level of dexterity needed. If your child can tie his shoe well, he might be able to brush his teeth, but most children will need assistance until age 6, 7, maybe even 8.
P&C: What can moms and dads do to help reduce fear of the dentist?
Berg: If you start taking your child to the dentist around age 1 for preventive care, the experience going forward will be positive. We rarely see these kids develop fear later because an early visit to the dentist makes them unlikely to have problems and more likely to understand that these visits are part of a healthy routine.