As a parent, it’s easy to invest so much energy into making sure your child is clean, fed, and clothed that you overlook the state of their teeth. (After all, which are you going to prioritize first: a loaded diaper or the vague notion that your kid should be flossing?)
But even when your plate is full, it’s important to leave room for consideration of your child’s oral health. Here’s why: Children can start to develop oral health issues a lot younger than most parents think. Plus, the earlier you start encouraging healthy oral care habits, the more likely your child is to willingly incorporate them into their routine—and the better chance they’ll have of enjoying healthy teeth for life.
If you’re totally flummoxed as to where to start, we’ve taken all the guesswork out of it. To best care for your child’s oral health, start with the following four tips.
Regardless of whether your child is teething, has a full set of teeth, or hasn’t sprouted any chompers yet, oral health care is essential. In the case of a child whose teeth haven’t come in yet, their gums can still harbor bacteria that can lead to oral health issues if it’s left there to proliferate.
Before you child starts teething, gently swipe a clean, damp washcloth across their gums every day to help ensure that harmful bacteria doesn’t stick around. Once teeth start coming in, use an infant toothbrush and a tiny amount of kid-friendly toothpaste to brush their teeth. Around the time when your child reaches two years old, start engaging them in the tooth brushing process so they can start to make oral care a personal habit. (If they’re resistant, check out our tips for getting your child excited about brushing their teeth.)
Combined with establishing an oral health care routine from infancy, the best way to set your child up for lifelong dental health is to make regular dentist visits a habit from a young age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends taking your child to their first dentist appointment by the time they’re one (or when their first tooth erupts—whichever is first).
Your dentist can provide you with tips for maintaining your child’s chompers and keep an eye on any risk factors for cavities or other oral health issues. It’s not unusual for children as young as two or three years old to develop cavities, so don’t assume that young teeth are necessarily healthier than adult teeth. Talk to your dentist to determine how often your child should visit; some kids need to be seen every three months because of certain oral health risk factors, while others will only need to be seen annually.
Don’t wait until your child’s permanent teeth have come in to start them on a flossing routine. Instead, you should start flossing with your child as soon as they have any teeth that are touching each other. That’s because the spaces between adjacent teeth are especially prone to the buildup of bacteria and food particles. If left to sit there, these substances can lead to cavities and gum disease.
As with brushing, your child may resist flossing at first. Be prepared to be patient and gentle and to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. The earlier you start, the better chance you have of getting your child comfortable with flossing over the long haul.
Feeding your child a healthy diet is important for dental health (and it’s good for their overall health, too). The better their diet, the better chance they have of avoiding cavities and other oral health issues.
Aim to limit your child’s consumption of sugary or processed foods and beverages. (When they do consume these foods, ask them to rinse their mouth out afterward so all that sugar doesn’t stick around on their teeth for the rest of the day.) Embrace whole foods such as vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins, and so on. And try to make sure your child is consuming adequate amounts of water every day—not only is hydration important for overall health, but sipping water throughout the day helps to ensure that sticky or sugary substances get rinsed out of the mouth as soon as possible.
As your child grows, you’ll no doubt encounter more questions about their oral health. Keeping the lines of communication open with your dentist will help ensure that your child’s teeth are properly looked after at every stage of their development.