how to take care of your child's teeth: tooth with cavities

Parents often ask me: “Why should I take care of my toddler’s milk teeth? They’re just going to fall out anyway.”

Why it’s important to take care of your toddler’s primary (also called deciduous, milk or baby) teeth:

  1. Primary teeth hold the space for where the permanent teeth will erupt and they guide the permanent teeth into that space.
  2. They allow for biting and chewing, which enable a toddler to maintain a healthy diet and will ensure overall good health and well-being.
  3. Teeth are vital in articulation of sounds, and therefore primary teeth play an important role in a child learning to speak.
  4. The presence and health of primary teeth are important for appearance.
  5. Taking care of the primary teeth will help establish good oral hygiene habits at an early stage, creating a good oral hygiene routine for the future.

It’s important to understand that children are just as susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease as adults. This is increased when the diet contains more sugar and where a good oral hygiene routine is not established, which often is the case with young children.

READ MORE: Why children grind their teeth and what you can do about it

What is malocclusion?

Malocclusion (sometimes also referred to as misaligned teeth) can be the result of unfavorable movement of adjacent teeth where a primary tooth is lost due to trauma, infection or decay. A space maintainer can be placed in the space of the lost tooth to prevent the unwanted movement of the other teeth and to allow appropriate space for the permanent tooth to erupt.

malocclusion or misaligned teeth in a child

Not only does this bring along significant additional dental costs and a lot of discomfort for the child, but it can compromise the oral hygiene routine even further.

dental space maintainer

Top 10 tips for looking after children’s teeth

1. Start a good oral hygiene routine as soon as possible

Even before teeth start to erupt, the soft tissue and tongue need to be cleaned with a piece of gauze or washcloth soaked in water. This must be done twice a day, preferably in the morning and evening. If your baby typically falls asleep while nursing, clean the mouth before the feeding.

As soon as the first teeth erupt, they need to be brushed without toothpaste – toothpaste can be introduced when the child turns 1 year old.

2. Fight baby bottle tooth decay

Don’t ever let your baby drink sugary drinks in a bottle because it can lead to baby bottle decay (also called Nursing Bottle Syndrome), which is the development of tooth decay and early loss of baby teeth in infants and toddlers. And never let your baby go to sleep with a bottle. If need be, only fill it with water.

READ MORE: Why you should NEVER let your baby fall asleep with a bottle

3. Avoid sugar

It is always advised for a pre-school child to have little or hardly any sugar.  Especially avoid sugary drinks when they are still drinking from a baby bottle.

4. Examine your child’s mouth

Lift the lip and look for abnormalities such as inflammation, infection and discoloration. Consult your dental hygienist accordingly.

5. Plan the first dental visit

Your child should see the dentist for the first time at around 2 years old, unless problems arise earlier.

6. Choose your words carefully

Despite your own fear and dislike for the dentist, don’t let your anxiety be carried over to your child. There is no need in today’s day and age to be fearful of the dentist and hygienist, and to think that the dental surgery is a place of discomfort and anxiety. Avoid using words and phrases such as “hurt, pain, injection and pulling teeth out…” when talking to your child about dental care.

7. Start flossing when the molars (back teeth) start touching

Flossing removes bacteria between the teeth. As the child grows older and the teeth start touching, decay is more likely to develop between the teeth, rather than on the chewing surface of the tooth.

8. Change your child’s toothbrush

Your child’s toothbrush should be replaced at least every 3 months.

9. Teach your child to take responsibility for their oral health

Once your child is showing interest in brushing his or her own teeth, you should allow them to do so, but assist until they are at least 6 years old. Only then do they have the dexterity to be able to clean their teeth on their own.

ALSO READ: The effect your child’s food and drink choices (yes, even the HEALTHY ones) have on their teeth

10. Ask your dental hygienist about sealants and fluoride treatments

Fluoride can greatly reduce the risk of tooth decay by making the teeth more resistant to bacteria. It also has remineralising properties, which means it can arrest dental decay if the demineralising is limited to the enamel.

dental sealant over a tooth fissure

A dental sealant is a coating that is placed into the fissures of the chewing surface of the molars (back teeth), to prevent food particles and bacteria accumulating in those deep grooves and, in doing so, preventing decay.

Sarie Liebenberg, dental hygienist and lecturer
Sarie traded a glamorous career as a lecturer at a finishing school for a new adventure as a dental hygienist and lecturer when she went to university to retrain at the age of 31. Sarie found her passion in helping people, saying ‘it’s much more than working on someone’s mouth, it’s restoring confidence, creating opportunities and being part of making it all happen, not only for the patient, but also for myself.’ A mom of one herself, Sarie has a special interest in working with children.