The Fight Against Cavities: How to Care for Babies' Teeth

How to Care for Baby Teeth

Baby-tooth Basics
Even before the first tooth appears (typically at 6 months), get into the habit of wiping your child's gums with a clean corner of a wet washcloth. This provides hygiene to the mouth and acclimates your baby to having her mouth cleaned. Caring for the new arrivals is important for chewing, speech, and normal development of the jaw bones. "A child can get a cavity even if she has only one tooth," says Jonathan Shenkin, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Maine. Yet in a recent American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) survey, 45 percent of moms said they didn't regularly clean their babies' teeth and less than one third began brushing before age 1. An easy way to get into the habit: Make brushing part of the cleaning you do after each feeding, as much as possible. Experts are divided on whether babies should use fluoridated toothpaste -- the American Dental Association (ADA) says no, the AAPD says yes -- so check with your child's pediatrician or dentist.

Never put your baby to bed with a bottle. The natural sugars in breast milk or formula will cling to her teeth throughout the night, allowing bacteria to transform sugars into cavity-causing acid. Plus, the flow of cleansing saliva decreases during sleep.

Dentists consider decay in young kids to be a communicable disease for the most part; moms are the key culprits when a child's mouth gets colonized with bacteria. Studies show that kids whose moms have had lots of cavities are more likely to have tooth decay themselves, Dr. Casamassimo says. So avoid passing your own bacteria to your child by not tasting your child's food with the same spoon you then use to feed her. Try not to blow on her food to cool it. And don't allow your baby to suck on his finger after putting it in your mouth. You may feel like you're going a little overboard with these strategies, but if you have a history of cavities, they're worth implementing.

Although cavities in babies are relatively rare, early-stage tooth decay is not. The first signs of a cavity are discoloration along the gum line and depressions anywhere on the surface of the tooth. Untreated, the decay can worsen, turning into brown or black spots -- often on the upper front teeth, caused by excessive bottle drinking.

The AAPD and the ADA recommend a baby see a dentist for the first time by 12 months; the AAPD found that 97 percent of parents don't know this. This visit sets the stage for good dental health because you'll receive advice from the dentist or hygienist on how to best care for your baby's teeth and manage her diet. If you wait too long to schedule the first checkup, any decay can be well underway.

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