Caring for your baby’s teeth

Your baby’s deciduous (or ‘milk’) teeth might be temporary, but they need the same kind of care and cleaning as permanent teeth. Your baby’s teeth will help her chew food and form sounds when speaking, and will have an effect on the way her jaw grows, so the earlier you begin a daily dental-hygiene routine, the better.

As soon as your baby gets her first tooth – which, typically, can be as early as four months or as late as a year – you need to start a once-a-day tooth-cleaning routine. You can use a clean, wet washcloth or a piece of clean gauze wrapped around your finger to clean your baby’s teeth and gums when she’s very young.

When your baby is about a year old, she usually has about 6 teeth. At this stage you can up the tooth-cleaning routine to twice daily. Use a small, soft-bristled, nylon baby toothbrush and toothpaste made specifically for babies. Check the packaging information on the toothbrush – it usually advises what age the toothbrush is suitable for. Also check the toothpaste packaging – some toothpastes contain artificial sweeteners and flavourings. And make sure the toothpaste doesn’t contain fluoride, as small children often swallow toothpaste rather than spitting it out, and fluoride is toxic in higher quantities.

As soon as your baby shows an interest in cleaning her own teeth, allow her to do so, showing her how to brush in small up-and-down circles rather than from side to side. She’ll need a toothbrush with a chunky, short handle and finger grips – but it should still have small head and soft, rounded bristles. You should replace the toothbrush about every three months, or sooner if the bristles begin to splay. Also show her how to use a very tiny bit of toothpaste – just a smear when she’s little, increasing very slightly to no bigger than pea-sized by the time she’s about 6. You’ll need to supervise your child’s tooth-brushing for several years; some children don’t have the manual dexterity to do this properly for themselves up until the age of about 7 – which is more or less when they begin losing their milk teeth and their permanent teeth start coming in.

Sugar is the enemy!

Your baby’s diet will have a profound impact on the health of her teeth, and acidic, sugary or fizzy drinks are particular villains when it comes to enamel damage and tooth decay. Even some ‘health’ drinks contain added sugar, so always carefully check the nutritional information on the container.

Avoid giving your baby sweetened fruit juices – rather, dilute unsweetened fruit juice (about five parts water to one part juice) and give this to her at mealtimes. Don’t give your baby milk or fruit juice, even if it’s diluted, in a bottle or sippy cup as a comforter before she goes to sleep – the sugars in juices and milk that lie about in your baby’s mouth all night cause tooth decay.

Always ask your doctor for sugar-free medicines for your baby.

Should I give fluoride supplements?

Fluoride is effective for protecting teeth at low concentrations, but can discolour and damage teeth and even the skeleton at higher levels. The addition of fluoride to drinking water is a very controversial issue, especially in South Africa where the water in some areas has a natural fluoride content. Speak to your dentist about the drinking water in your area and get advice from him about whether to give your baby fluoride supplements.

When should I take my baby to the dentist?

It’s a good idea to take your baby with you when you’re visiting the dentist, so she can get used to the smells and sounds of the surgery, and also meet the dentist. From about a year old, your baby should have her own annual check-up.

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