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Tooth Care For Tykes

A child’s health depends on factors like good sleeping habits, proper nutrition, and immunizations, to name just a few. As a parent, have you considered the importance of proper dental care for tiny teeth? Caring for your child’s teeth while he is young can improve lifelong oral health and prevent potential learning problems, as one of the major causes for missing school is toothache.

Children’s teeth begin forming before birth. Dr. James F. Ferguson, John W. Green professor and chair in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, says fetal teeth begin to develop in pregnancy at an early gestational age, around five or six weeks. By 20-22 weeks, one can see “teeth buds” by ultrasound.

As early as 4 months of age, the first primary teeth to erupt through the gums are the lower central incisors, followed closely by the upper central incisors. Although all 20 primary teeth usually appear by age 3, the pace and order of their eruption can vary. Until the first tooth sighting, however, it’s a good idea to clean your child’s gums with a soft infant toothbrush and water to promote a healthy mouth and gums.

Cleaning your child’s teeth
Dr. John Mink, professor of pediatric dentistry at UK’s College of Dentistry, advises brushing as soon as the child’s first tooth erupts, using a pea-size amount of toothpaste on a soft-bristle child’s toothbrush twice a day. Mink does not recommend toothpaste with fluoride until the child is able to spit out the toothpaste.

Proper brushing removes plaque from the inner, outer, and chewing surface. To make brushing easier, Mink suggests parents place their child between their legs for support with their head leaning back on the parent, gently hold the cheek open with a finger, place the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle, and start along the gum line using a gentle circular motion.

Brush the outer surfaces of each tooth, upper and lower. Repeat the same method on the inside surfaces and chewing surfaces of all the teeth. Finish by brushing the tongue to help freshen breath and remove bacteria. It’s also a good idea to switch out brushes. Keep two or three on hand and allow them to dry out since wet brushes harbor bacteria. By age 4 or 5, children should be able to brush their own teeth twice a day, but still with a parent’s help.

First visit by first birthday
Mink says the first visit to the dentist should be by the first birthday. Pediatric dentists have an extra two years of specialized training, and are dedicated to the oral health of children from infancy through the teenage years. As a normal part of a routine dental visit, the dentist will be looking in your child’s mouth for normal growth patterns, the number of teeth, and the health of the lips, tongue, gums, and the interior surface of the mouth and cheeks.

Preventing tooth decay
“Preventing tooth decay is the major goal with early dental care. Decay does not heal but we can prevent or slow it down,” Mink says.

One serious form of decay among children is early childhood caries, also known as baby bottle tooth decay. This condition is caused by frequent and long exposures of an infant’s teeth to liquids that contain sugar. Among those liquids are milk, formula, fruit juice, even watered-down fruit juice, and other sweetened drinks.

Putting a baby to bed with a bottle other than water causes rapid tooth decay because sweet liquid pools around the child’s teeth, giving plaque bacteria an opportunity to produce acids that attach to tooth enamel. In older children, sugary snacks should be limited, and nothing should be eaten after brushing at night.

Teaching your child good dental habits in the early years ensures a lifetime of healthy smiles and improved health.

For more information on pediatric dentistry at UK HealthCare, go to

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