When should I start cleaning my child's teeth?

Q: When should I start cleaning my child's teeth?

A: You should start cleaning your baby's teeth as soon as you see them emerge. Use a soft toothbrush and fluoride-free toothpaste designed for infants. Just remember that most babies usually don't sprout teeth until they're around 6 months old, so prior to this you should swab your child's gums with a piece of gauze or clean washcloth every day before bed, when the production of saliva (a natural cleaner) declines. If you do this consistently your child will be used to the habit once her teeth come in. Plus, wiping out the mouth will keep milk from pooling in the recesses of your baby's gums and help prevent thrush (an oral yeast infection). Remember that even though dental care has improved by leaps and bounds from when you were little, decay is still the biggest cause of tooth loss in kids, and the best way to protect your child's teeth is to lay the groundwork for good oral hygiene habits sooner rather than later. --Richard Laliberte

Originally published in the September 2001 issue of Parents magazine.  Updated 2009.