Your child’s first tooth is a major milestone and marks the beginning of their dental journey. According to local dentists, it is important to start teaching your child good dental habits as early as possible, because proper oral care will protect their teeth for years to come.
Practicing good hygiene from a young age
Baby teeth are an essential part of a child’s overall health and development, says Dr. Kenneth McGowan, a dentist with East Main Dental Center in Medford. “Teeth begin developing prenatally and usually erupt into the mouth when a child is about 6 months old, but ages can vary.” On rare occasions, a baby is born with teeth that have already erupted, so parents should always take note of when the baby teeth start to come in, he adds.
While every child is different, most children will have a full set of 20 primary teeth by the age of three, says Dr. Pamela Ortiz, a pediatric dentist at Grins4Kidz in Medford. As soon as the first teeth erupt, she says parents should clean them with a soft washcloth, gauze or an infant toothbrush because this keeps their children’s teeth healthy and helps kids adjust to having something in their mouth. In addition to cleaning children’s teeth, parents must also watch out for any abnormalities. If baby teeth look dingy, fuzzy or discolored, she says that could be a sign of decay and you should take your child to the dentist. “Baby teeth should look like shiny, white Chiclets.”
Parents should also check the areas where the baby teeth come in and make sure there are no bumps or swelling around the teeth, because the gums could form cysts, explains McGowan. “I recommend parents establish a relationship with a dentist early on, and then bring their child in for a visit as soon as the baby teeth erupt so we can screen for abnormalities.”
The importance of proper dental care
Teeth are a living organ, says Ortiz. “When kids suffer from dental decay, they could have a lot of pain, or even an infection, in their baby teeth,” she explains, noting that an infection in the mouth could spread to the eyes, face or brain. “I tell parents to look for any bleeding, pain or swollen gums because those could be red flags of an infected tooth.”
If a child loses baby teeth early due to decay, it can affect the position of the permanent teeth, Ortiz says. She explains that the idea that these are just baby teeth and will fall out eventually anyway is a poor way of thinking because several baby teeth are essential to jawbone growth. If parents don’t know when their child should start losing his or her baby teeth, she says there are charts available with this information. “Kids usually lose their baby teeth when they are between 6-8 years old.”
In addition to decay or an infection, cavities are another challenging issue, says McGowan. “It can be difficult to get children’s cooperation during the procedure, or we may have to sedate them, which isn’t ideal,” he explains. He believes it’s important for parents to realize that any issues with a child’s baby teeth could transfer over to their adult teeth. “Cavities create a reservoir of bacteria in the mouth which could spread and lead to additional problems after the baby teeth fall out.”
Fortunately, dental problems — including cavities — can be avoided through proper oral hygiene. Whenever teeth erupt into the mouth, McGowan says parents must be diligent about cleaning their children’s teeth, especially if a child is nursing or drinking from a bottle.
Ortiz believes brushing regularly is a must. “Kids don’t have the dexterity to brush their teeth by themselves until they are about 6-9 years old, so parents must do it for them,” she explains. “It’s important to allow a child to practice brushing his or her teeth, but parents should check afterward and ensure the teeth have been thoroughly cleaned.”
McGowan agrees. “I recommend brushing twice a day,” he says. He advises that when a child is around 5 years old, parents should demonstrate how to properly spit out toothpaste without swallowing it. “Parents also need to incorporate flossing into their children’s dental routine as soon as it looks like two teeth are touching each other.”
Good hygiene, healthy teeth
Ortiz and McGowan agree it is imperative that parents start teaching their children healthy dental habits from a young age. “When children practice proper hygiene, it prevents many dental diseases from occurring when they are older,” says Ortiz.