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Dental care for toddlers

Even though baby teeth eventually give way to adult teeth, caring for them is important. Tooth decay in the toddler years can contribute to problems with permanent teeth.

In a very short time, you've watched your baby's toothless grin turn into a million-dollar smile. You'll want to do all you can to keep those new teeth healthy. If your little one learns good habits now, his or her healthy smile can last into adulthood.

Tooth decay: An enemy of baby teeth

The toddler years can be a vulnerable time for teeth. By age 5, nearly 50% of children have one or more cavities, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Cavities in baby teeth can affect the spacing of permanent teeth if the decay causes teeth to be lost too early.

Tooth decay happens when teeth and gums are exposed to any liquids or foods other than water for long periods. Bacteria in the mouth use the sugar in food to make acid. Over time, the acid eats away at the teeth. This causes decay (cavities).

Protect those pearly whites

Some of the best ways to keep your child's teeth healthy are:

Regular brushing and flossing. Brush your child's teeth twice a day. Start using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste when your child turns 3. If your child is under 3, use only a smear.

The direction you brush isn't as important as cleaning each tooth top and bottom, inside and out.

Use floss to clean between any two teeth that touch each other. This will help prevent a cavity from forming between the teeth.

Choose healthy foods. Serve teeth-friendly snacks such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid sweets and sticky foods, such as candy, cookies or dehydrated fruit snacks.

Try to satisfy your child's thirst with water or milk. If you use sippy cups between meals, fill them with water only. Sipping milk, juice or sugared drinks in a sippy cup between meals can contribute to tooth decay, according to the AAP.

Regular checkups. The AAP recommends that regular dental checkups begin by the time the child is 1 year old. During a dental exam, your child's dentist will:

  • Check that teeth have come in normally.
  • If needed, apply a topical fluoride solution to protect against cavities.
  • Prescribe fluoride drops or tablets if you live in an area where the water isn't fluoridated.

Make brushing fun

As with dressing and bathing, kids will be more likely to cooperate with brushing their teeth if you can make it fun. A few things to try:

  • Have a small sand timer or a special song you sing while your child brushes. Ask your dentist how long your child should brush.
  • Make brushing a game. Have your child try to help you find the teeth "hiding" in the back of his or her mouth. Most toddlers will focus only on the front teeth they can see.
  • Have your child pretend to be a favorite animal. You can pretend to brush the blueberries out of the bear's teeth or the fish out of the shark's teeth.
  • Try different flavors of toothpaste to find one your child likes.

Your child's dental health habits also start with a good model. So remember to take care of your own smile too.

Reviewed 7/21/2022

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