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When to Take Your Baby to the Dentist

Optimizing oral health for babies and toddlers

Malia Jacobson

Published on: October 06, 2021

baby smiling a gummy smile

Every time you test the temperature of your baby’s bottle with your mouth, or share food, a straw or a utensil with your toddler, you’re also sharing bacteria that cause tooth decay. That’s right, cavity-causing dental decay is an infectious, transmissible disease that parents can unknowingly pass to their children, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

After decades of decline, the rates of cavities in children under 5 are on the rise; experts blame a diet higher in sugary foods and drinks. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the NIH, reports that from one-third to one-half of children under age 5 develop cavities in baby teeth. Yet, like many infectious diseases, dental decay is preventable. Here’s how to protect your child’s oral health, even if those pearly whites are still months away from appearing.

Apps That Help Tots Brush

When to visit a dentist

In the National Poll on Children’s Health, researchers at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that most parents weren’t sure when their child should first visit the dentist. Out of this majority, over 16 percent believed kids didn’t need to visit a dentist until after age 4, reflecting a common belief that cleaning baby teeth isn’t all that important — they’ll just fall out anyway, right? 

Wrong. Decay in baby teeth can harm oral health in the short term and for years to come. The bacteria that cause tooth decay in baby teeth can break down the enamel of permanent teeth as they begin to come in, making these teeth more vulnerable to developing cavities. And because baby teeth serve as placeholders that help guide permanent teeth into position, losing baby teeth too early as a result of tooth decay can create a crooked, crowded smile later on. 

Scheduling a dental visit by age 1, or six months after the first tooth pops up, helps safeguard oral health in a few important ways, according to experts at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. First, establishing a relationship with a dentist early helps pave the way for smoother, less stressful visits in the future, when your child begins “real” dental cleanings or needs a filling. Visiting the dentist by 12 months of age also helps the dentist spot any early signs of trouble and then advise you on the best way to care for your child’s oral health.

Little cavities, big deal

What’s the dentist looking for at these early visits? Before tooth decay causes a cavity, it may cause white spots on tooth enamel, which signal that the enamel is breaking down. From there, a cavity may look like a small, light brown spot on your child’s tooth. If the cavity isn’t treated, the spot becomes larger and may turn darker brown or black.

More advanced tooth decay may cause a toothache, sensitivity to hot or cold, bad breath and swelling. According to the American Dental Association, tooth decay in baby teeth can affect a child’s overall well-being; kids with painful teeth are less likely to eat enough, and therefore won’t get the nutrition they need to thrive.

What happens if my baby has a cavity?

After giving your child a complete dental exam, the dentist may suggest X-rays to help diagnose tooth decay. In many cases, small cavities can be filled in a single dentist visit; the dentist removes the decayed enamel and uses tooth-colored material to fill the hole. Though the process may not delight your child, they’ll usually be able to eat or drink soon afterward and shouldn’t experience pain.

Dead or seriously decayed teeth may need to be completely removed. This process may take two or more visits, and also may require sedation. If removing decayed baby teeth will affect the placement of permanent teeth, your child’s dentist may recommend a composite bridge (similar to a partial denture) that replaces the missing teeth and holds the remaining teeth in place until permanent teeth come in.

Caring for gums and baby teeth

Before your baby’s teeth appear, use a clean, soft cloth or small piece of gauze to gently wipe the gums after feedings. This helps prevent sugary milk or food residue from remaining on your baby’s gums; such residue provides an environment in which the bacteria that cause tooth decay can grow.

Start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as the first one appears, advises Stanford Children’s Health. Young toddlers need just a dab of toothpaste — about the size of a grain of rice — while preschoolers can use a pea-size amount. After age 2, add daily flossing to your child’s routine.

Does your toddler need an electric toothbrush? Most dentists say no — any child-size, extra-soft toothbrush will work. However, electric toothbrushes can coax reluctant brushers and help establish healthy habits, especially when kids choose the toothbrush (or at least the color) themselves. Pair the chosen toothbrush with a kid-friendly brushing app to create a fun routine that makes brushing tiny teeth a bit less burdensome. We’ll say “Ahhhh” to that!

Editor's note: This article was first published in December of 2020 and has been updated for 2021.

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