Preventive Dental Care in Early Childhood

First Teeth

A baby's first tooth usually emerges within the first six months of life. The four front teeth, two lower and two upper, will be the baby's first teeth, often by the time he or she is 12-15 months old. The lower central incisors are typically the first to erupt, followed by the upper central incisors. Next to appear are the lateral incisors, followed by canines, first molars and second molars. By two years of age, children usually have sixteen teeth and at three years old they have a complete set of twenty baby teeth.  

Establishing Toothbrushing Habits

Preventive dental care begins in the earliest days of infancy. Newborns may not have teeth, but it is important to gently clean their gums every day with a damp washcloth.  Once teeth begin to erupt, they become susceptible to decay. Switch from a washcloth to a soft-bristled toothbrush designed for infants. Apply a tiny amount of fluoride toothpaste, no larger than a grain of rice. Because infants can't spit, it is important to use a small enough amount of toothpaste that incidental ingestion will not exceed a safe level of fluoride consumption.

Continue to use a rice-sized portion of toothpaste throughout the infant and toddler stages. By three years old, most children can safely use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Encourage children to avoid swallowing toothpaste and spit it out instead. Preschoolers and young school-aged children need parental help to brush properly and should always be supervised when brushing. Some kids will need parents or caregivers to brush for them until they gain the fine motor skills to brush effectively.

Regular Dental Visits

The American Dental Association recommends that infants visit the dentist by their first birthday, or within six months of the emergence of their first tooth. Engaging in routine dental visits that provide oral exams and cleaning from an early age increases the likelihood that children will continue to visit the dentist regularly. It builds a relationship between the dental care providers and families and promotes a proactive, preventative approach to dental health, rather than seeking out dental care to treat problems after they arise. 

Fluoride Varnish

One aspect of routine dental visits for children is the application of topical fluoride treatments to support healthy mineralization of tooth enamel. Teeth absorb a small amount of fluoride, which strengthens the enamel to protect teeth from acids that form as a byproduct of bacteria and sugars on the surface of teeth. Children as young as one year old can receive topical fluoride treatments if they have erupted teeth. Applying fluoride varnish to children age 1-5 has been shown to reduce the number of cavities in early childhood.  Biannual fluoride varnish applications should continue throughout childhood until kids are 16 years old.

If you're trying to decide how to help your children take care of their teeth, look for preventative dental care services.