A baby’s primary or baby teeth are just as important as their permanent teeth. Baby teeth help a young child to learn to chew and speak properly and maintain the correct space in a child’s gums to allow for the eruption of their permanent teeth.
Baby teeth start to form in the jawbone before birth. A baby’s first primary tooth usually erupts at about six months of age but this can happen as early as birth or as late as the child’s first birthday. The average child has a full set of 20 baby teeth by the age of two to three years. The first visit to the dentist should be within six months of the eruption of the first tooth or by the child’s first birthday.
Most babies are irritable when new teeth break through their gums. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for:
- Frequent crying and crankiness
- A slight fever
- Reddened cheeks and drooling
- Appetite loss and upset stomach
- Sucking or gnawing on toys
- Pulling the ear on the same side as the erupting tooth
It is very important not to ignore symptoms such as fever and diarrhoea. It is recommended that they are treated as unrelated symptoms to teething and to seek medical advice to eliminate other causes.
To help relieve the discomfort of teething, the Australian Dental Association suggests:
- Washing your hands and then gently rubbing your baby’s gum with a clean finger
- Give your baby a teething ring or wet washcloth to bite
- Teething rings can be chilled in the refrigerator before use to help manage gum swelling and pain. (Do not put teething rings in the freezer)
- Giving your baby non-sweetened rusks to chew on
Signs and symptoms may appear and disappear over several days. Ask your dentist or pharmacist for advice before using any pain reliever specifically created for babies and toddlers. Never give aspirin to a baby or young child.
Thumb sucking is a natural reflex in babies and young children. Most children lose interest in thumb sucking and dummies at two to four years of age. Children who continue to suck their thumb or fingers after the permanent teeth have appeared risk developing crooked teeth, especially if the sucking is forceful or frequent. Also, speech defects may arise, especially with the “s” and “th” sounds. Gently encourage your child to give up thumb sucking. See your dentist for advice if your child cannot stop thumb sucking by the end of the first year at school.
Early Childhood Caries
As soon as your baby develops their first tooth, they are at risk of dental decay, which is known as Early Childhood Caries (ECC). The following tips can help prevent ECC in your child:
- If your baby has teeth, it’s best to avoid settling them to sleep overnight with a breastfeed or bottle of milk, sweetened flavoured milk, cordial, soft drink or fruit juice.
- Bacteria feed on the sugar in these drinks and form plaque acids on teeth, which eat into the tooth surface and cause decay
- Encourage your baby to learn to drink from a toddler cup from 12 months of age
- Don’t allow your child to take a bottle of milk or other sugary drinks to bed
- If your baby needs to suck on something to settle them to sleep, offer a dummy rather than a bottle
- If your baby has a breastfeed or bottle of milk before bed, gently wipe down their teeth with a moistened cloth before putting them to sleep
- Avoid giving your baby or toddler frequent snacks - three meals and two snacks per day is ideal to meet dietary needs
Diet plays a significant role in the health of your child’s teeth.
What food contributes to dental decay?
Foods high in refined carbohydrates (sugar), such as concentrated fruit snack bars, lollies, muesli bars, sweet biscuits, some breakfast cereals and sugary drinks and juices can contribute to dental decay, especially if eaten often and over long periods.
Highly refined packaged foods such as savoury crackers and chips can also have high levels of carbohydrate (sugar).
Tips to help minimise dental decay in your child’s teeth:
- Your child should enjoy a variety of nutritious foods, especially foods rich in calcium and low in acids and sugars
- Enjoy two healthy snacks a day such as fruit and a small portion of cheese. Milk and hard cheeses such as cheddar have protective qualities to help prevent dental decay
- Offer your child a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, lean meats and dairy products
- Limit sugary snacks such as lollies, fruit and muesli bars, biscuits, dried fruit, cordials, juices and soft drink
You need to make sure you clean your child’s teeth morning and night, as even many healthy foods contain high amounts of sugar. Importantly, a healthy diet must be complemented by good oral hygiene - brushing and flossing teeth and regular dental check-ups. Daily flossing and brushing greatly reduces the risk of tooth decay.
How to brush your baby’s teeth
- Wipe baby’s gums with a moistened soft cloth once a day
- Once baby teeth appear use a baby’s toothbrush with a small head and soft, rounded bristles
- Up to 18 months, brush their teeth with plain water after the last feed in the eening
- Special low fluoride toothpastes can be introduced from around the age of 18 months
- Only use a smear of toothpaste and teach your child to spit out the toothpaste after brushing
- Store all toothpaste out of reach as some children love the taste of toothpaste and will eat it
- From around the age of four to five, children should begin to learn how to brush their own teeth
- Until around age eight when children have the manual skills to effectively clean their own, tooth brushing should be a combined effort by parents and children
Flossing can be done a minimum of twice weekly at about age two and a half, in areas where the teeth are touching. Flossing helps remove decay causing bacteria from between their teeth and keeps their gums healthy. Slide the floss between the teeth and gently work it up and down, against the surfaces of each tooth. Do not snap the floss down between the teeth as the floss may damage the gums. After flossing, have your child rinse with water, then brush your child’s teeth.
If your toddler resists brushing or cannot sit still for two minutes, then try these suggestions:
- Consider a battery-powered brush, which adds novelty to cleaning their teeth
- Sing nursery rhymes or play a favourite song while you help your child brush their teeth
- Use a combination of “show and tell” methods. For example, you could brush your teeth as your child imitates you; then next time, tell your child how to brush while you watch
- Make flossing and brushing as much fun as you can
- Encouraging healthy eating and drinking habits and good oral hygiene in your child is the best way to help them have healthy teeth for life
Find out more about Australian Dental Association here