Your baby's dental health
You love your baby’s smile! And you want to keep it healthy for many years to come.
Dental health is the health of gums and teeth. It’s an important part of your baby’s overall health. Strong teeth help your baby chew solid foods, talk and smile.
Tooth decay (also called dental carries or cavities) happens when acids in the mouth break down a tooth’s enamel. Enamel is the hard, outer layer of a tooth. Your baby’s teeth can be harmed by tooth decay as soon as they start to come in. If a cavity isn’t filled, the decay can go deeper into the tooth and its nerves. This can cause toothache.
If a baby has serious tooth decay, his dentist may need to remove some of the teeth. This can cause problems because baby teeth hold spots in the jaw for later adult teeth. If a dentist needs to remove baby teeth, a baby may have crooked or crowded teeth when his adult teeth come in. Tooth decay also can lead to infections.
About 1 in 10 2-year-olds (10 percent) has one or more cavities. By age 5, nearly half of children have some cavities.
Tooth decay is caused when plaque on teeth comes in contact with sugary or starchy drinks or food.
Plaque is sticky bacteria that grow on teeth all the time. The bacteria feed on sugars in food and change them into harmful acids. Over time, these acids break down tooth enamel and cause tooth decay.
Tooth decay in babies is sometimes called baby bottle tooth decay. When a baby often drinks something sweet, like milk or formula, the sugar in it can lead to tooth decay. This also can happen if it takes him a long time to finish the whole bottle or if he sleeps with the bottle propped in his mouth.
If you share spoons, food or drinks with your baby, you can pass bacteria that cause tooth decay from your mouth to your baby’s mouth. Don’t share these with your baby.
Start caring for your baby’s gums and teeth in her first year of life. Most babies get their first tooth when they’re around 6 months old. If your baby has healthy gums long before she starts teething, she’s less likely to have dental health problems when her teeth come in.
Here’s how to keep your baby’s gums and teeth healthy:
- Feed your baby only breast milk for at least 6 months. Don’t give your baby a bottle with sugar water, juice or soda.
- Clean your baby’s gums after every feeding, starting in the days following birth. Use a wet washcloth or water on a baby toothbrush with soft bristles. This helps remove plaque from his gums. Once your baby starts eating foods, these cleanings remove small pieces of food that can cause tooth decay.
- Wash your baby’s pacifier with water only and keep it clean. Don’t clean the pacifier with your mouth. Never give your baby a pacifier dipped in sugar or honey.
- Don’t put your baby to sleep with a bottle. Let your baby finish feeding before bedtime or naptime. This can help prevent baby bottle tooth decay.
- When your baby starts eating solid food, feed her healthy meals and don’t share drinks, food or spoons. Limit the amount of fruit juices and sweets your baby gets. Offer them at mealtimes only. Feed her baby food using only her own spoon.
- Brush your baby’s teeth twice each day, as soon as the first tooth comes in. Use water on a baby toothbrush with soft bristles. Brush all sides of each tooth once in the morning and again at night. Ask your baby’s dentist what kind of toothpaste to use.
- Take your baby to the dentist when she gets her first tooth, or by her first birthday. Your baby’s dentist checks that her gums and teeth are healthy. Regular dental checkups every 6 months are an important part of well-baby care. They help prevent problems like tooth decay.
- Teach your baby to drink from a cup by his first birthday. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says children should stop bottlefeeding at 12 to 14 months of age.
Signs and symptoms of dental health problems include:
- Bad breath
- Gums that are shiny, swollen or red or red-purple in color
- Gums that hurt when they’re touched that is not due to teething
- Gums that bleed during brushing
- Loose teeth
- Mouth sores, lumps or other growths
- Toothache or other pain in the mouth. This can be mistaken for teething.
- Trouble sleeping
Call your baby’s dentist if your baby has any of these signs or symptoms.
Treatment depends on the problem your child has and how bad it is. She may simply need a really good teeth cleaning by the dentist. But if she has serious tooth decay, her dentist may need to remove the teeth. Some children with dental health problems even need surgery.
Ask your family dentist if she treats babies. If not, find a pediatric dentist. This is a dentist who has special training in treating babies, children and teens.
Last reviewed January 2013
See also: Dental health during pregnancy, Gum and teeth change, Teething
Frequently Asked Questions
How do vaccines work?
Tiny organisms (like viruses and bacteria) can attack your body and cause infections that make you sick. When you get an infection, your body makes special disease-fighting substances called antibodies to fight the organism. In many cases, once your body has made antibodies against an organism, you become immune to the infection it causes. Immune means you are protected against getting an infection. If you're immune to an infection, it means you can't get the infection.
Vaccines usually have a small amount or piece of the organism that causes an infection. The organisms used in vaccines are generally weakened or killed so they won’t make you sick. The vaccine causes your body to make antibodies against the organism. This allows you to become immune to an infection without getting sick first.
Some vaccines have a live but weakened organism. These are called live-virus vaccines. While live-virus vaccines are usually safe for most babies and adults, they’re not generally recommended for pregnant women.
See also: Vaccinations and pregnancy, Your baby’s vaccinations
When should I start brushing my baby’s teeth?
As soon as your baby's first tooth appears, start brushing with water. Later, when she is old enough to spit, introduce toothpaste. When you use toothpaste, make it a small (pea-sized) amount of a non-fluoride brand. Don't use a toothpaste with fluoride until your child is 2 years old, unless recommended by her dentist. Don't give her fluoride mouth rinses until she's 6. Start flossing as soon as two teeth start to touch each other.
So when should you actually take her to the dentist? The American Dental Association recommends that your baby get her first dental visit within 6 months of getting her first tooth and no later than her first birthday. The dentist checks the shape of your baby's mouth, teeth and gums and looks for signs of damage caused by thumb sucking. Maintaining dental health early can help protect your baby's teeth for a lifetime.