• Mayo Clinic Q & A

    Mayo Clinic Q and A: Keeping children’s teeth healthy

a close-up of an adult brushing the teeth of a very young white toddler with blond hair and blue eyes

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My 7-month-old daughter recently got her first tooth. She likes to chew on her teething ring. I want to start good dental habits early and create a routine of brushing her teeth twice a day. When should I introduce a toothbrush so she can get comfortable with it? Do you have any other tips for establishing good oral hygiene early?

ANSWER: Dental infections are one of the most common infections in children. Even though dentistry has come a long way with the latest dental advancements, you still have to play an active role in your own dental care — and your children's.

Children who have decay in their baby teeth are more likely to have decay in their adult teeth. Oral health is whole-person health, and untreated dental disease has been linked to stroke, heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.

Dental caries — otherwise known as tooth decay or cavities — affect many children and adults. Dental caries are an infectious disease caused by bacteria transferred from your mouth, or another caregiver's mouth, to your children's mouth. This disease is nearly entirely preventable through good dental habits and routine checkups with a dentist.

Starting at 6 months, formula should be mixed with fluoride water to make bottles. Nighttime eating increases the risk of tooth decay due to lactose, which is milk sugar. In general, the more carbohydrates a child consumes, the greater chance for cavities.

Every child should have an oral health exam by age 1, or when the first tooth emerges. Regular dental visits should follow every three to six months. Dental care is different for each family, and it could include a pediatric dentist or family dentist; women, infants and children clinics; and even your health care professional's office.

Fluoride varnish should be applied to your children's teeth every three to six months, and often can be applied at their well-child visit by the health care team. This topical fluoride can prevent and even reverse early cavities. Fluoride is a mineral naturally found in water and some food. It strengthens the tooth enamel, the hard outer coating on teeth.

You can establish healthy habits with your child when they are young. By 6 months, children should have fluoride in their water, and children of brushing age should use soft brushes and fluoridated toothpaste. If you don't have access to fluoridated water, your children's health care team can recommend a source of fluoride, including nursery water or fluoride drops or tablets.

Children need supervision with brushing at least halfway through grade school. Parents should always supervise. You can stop supervision when you think your child is doing as good of a job as you would. Brushing two times a day is usually enough, and children should begin flossing as soon as their dentist recommends it.

Frequent snacking increases your children's risk for cavities. The saliva in their mouth is important to prevent cavities. If the mouth frequently has food or sugary liquid, the saliva cannot protect the teeth from decay.

Avoid soda pop, juice and frequent snacking. Not only do they increase the risk of obesity, but the combination of sugar and acid breaks down teeth. The same goes for juice. Juice is just a form of soda pop without carbonation. Instead, choose water to drink between meals and select one or two times daily to have a snack. Also, include food and drinks rich in calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones and teeth.

You can help your children create a lifetime of healthy dental habits, including cleaning their teeth, regularly visiting a dentist and eating healthy foods. Dr. Erin Westfall, Family Medicine, Mayo Clinic Health System, Mankato, Minnesota

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