Dental Care for Babies and Young Children
Despite being temporary, a child’s first teeth are just as important as their permanent teeth later on. Primary or baby teeth serve as placeholders within the jaw and gum, reserving the correct space for the permanent teeth to later erupt. The primary molars are particularly important, and need to remain in place until the child is 10-12 years old.
Like permanent teeth, primary teeth require daily hygiene to prevent cavities and infections. Cavities in primary teeth are typically caused by prolonged contact with sweet drinks, food acids, or even food.
Primary teeth are also important for establishing good oral hygiene routines early in life. It’s easier to adopt a habit when we’re younger, and a child that takes good care of their primary teeth will be more likely to enjoy a happy, healthy smile for life.
When Do Primary Teeth Appear?
Primary teeth are already forming within the jaw before a child is even born. Normally, the teeth will start to appear through the gum within 6 months, and by 3 years a child should have a full set of 20 primary teeth.
Teeth start to appear from the incisors — the front teeth — and work their way back through the mouth, so that the second molars are the last teeth to erupt. Generally the lower teeth will appear first, followed by the upper.
Please note that these times are guidelines, and that variations well outside of these periods can still be normal. For example, some babies are born with one or more teeth already erupted, while others might not get their first tooth until their first birthday.
Caring for Teething Babies
Primary teeth erupting through the gums will irritate most children, leading to discomfort. There are various signs you can look out for to tell that your child is being upset by erupting teeth:
- Frequent crying and irritability
- Slight fever
- Reddened cheeks and drooling
- Loss of appetite
- Nappies become soiled more frequently
- Sucking and or gnawing on toys
- Pulling the ear on the same side as the emerging tooth
The best solution is to gently rub your baby’s gum with a clean finger, or to give them something to bite — a dummy, teething ring, wet washcloth, etc. Teething rings can be chilled to aid in treating swelling and pain, but should not be placed in a freezer.
If your child experiences a persistent fever, consult a doctor. Do not use any pain killer or local anaesthetic gel without first consulting your dentist or pharmacist, and never give a child or baby aspirin.
Early Childhood Caries (ECC)
Caries is the technical name for cavities caused by tooth decay. When these occur in primary teeth, it’s called Early Childhood Caries, or ECC.
There are many causes of ECC, some of them dietary, others hereditary. The main risk factors include:
- Settling the baby to sleep with anything other than water. Milk, flavoured milk, cordial, soft drink, juice, sports drink and the like will all feed bacteria in the mouth with the sugars they contain. These bacteria will form plaque, and acids from the plaque will start to decay the tooth enamel.
- Night-time bottle feeding and frequent at-will breast feeding past about 1 year of age.
- High-sugar diets with frequent snacks and grazing.
- Oral health problems such as a lack of saliva and mouth breathing will create environments conducive to decay.
- Lack of proper oral hygiene.
- Sleep disorder problems.
Regular dental checkups are just as important for children and their primary teeth as they are for adults and their permanent teeth. Your dentist will be able to monitor the growth and health of your child’s teeth to ensure they don’t get infections, abscesses, or lose teeth too early.
Like with adults, children’s teeth should be cleaned after breakfast and before bed.
Limit sugary drinks as much as possible. Only give your child plain water or a plain dummy if they like to suck on something as they settle in to sleep. Sugary drinks, especially juice, should be limited to a half a cup a day, preferably diluted, and only during meal times. Don’t give your child juice or cordial to sip throughout the day.
Avoid dipping dummies in honey, syrups, or jams, especially when settling to bed.
Take you child to the dentist from about one year of age. Early dental checkups usually involve a quick inspection and a little bit of a clean, and are typically just intended to monitor growth and acclimate the child to a dental clinic environment.
Oral Hygiene for Babies and Children
One of the biggest misconceptions is that oral hygiene is just about cleaning your teeth. In reality, keeping your gums clean and healthy is equally — if not more — important. That’s why oral hygiene begins at birth.
Prior to primary teeth erupting, gently wipe down the baby’s mouth with a warm, moistened face washer. This is to remove any food particles and get the baby used to having their mouth cleaned.
Brushing and Flossing for Children
Once the primary teeth start to erupt, it’s time to start brushing. Use a children’s brush with soft, rounded bristles and low-fluoride toothpaste. Once two teeth have erupted next to each other, start flossing between them. This should be done twice a day, as you would an adult.
Children younger than 8-10 are generally not able to clean their own teeth properly, so until then you will need to supervise. Choose a position where you can easily see into the child’s mouth, for example seated on your lap or standing behind them in front of the mirror.
Besides maintaining good oral health, the most important part of early oral hygiene is to establish good hygiene habits. Clean your own teeth at the same time you clean your child’s and lead by example. Set a timer for two minutes, and get children into the habit of spending that long brushing their teeth to make sure they’re clean.