‘My daughter just got her first tooth. The doctor said I should start brushing it now, but that seems really silly.’
Those tiny pearls that bring so much pain before they arrive and so much excitement when they first break through the gums are destined for extinction. They can all be expected to fall out during the early and mid school years, to be replaced by permanent teeth. So why take good care of them now?
There are several reasons: first of all, since they hold a place for the permanently. Then, too, your baby will need these primary teeth for biting and chewing for many years; bad teeth could interfere with good nutrition. And healthy teeth are also important for the development if normal speech and appearance – both important to a child’s self-confidence. The child who can’t speak early because of his faulty teeth, or who keeps her mouth shut to hide decayed or missing teeth, doesn’t feel good about herself. Finally, if you start your child brushing early, good dental habits are likely to be second nature by the time that second set of teeth comes in.
The first teeth can be wiped with a clean damp gauze pad, flannel or disposable finger brush designed for the purpose, or brushed with a very soft, tiny infant toothbrush (with no more than three rows of bristles) moistened with water. A dentist (you’ll need to secure one for your baby soon anyway) or a pharmacist can recommended a brush and help you locate the finger brushes. Wiping will probably do a more thorough job until the molars come in, but brushing will get baby into an important habit she’ll need for a lifetime of good dental hygiene, so a combination of the two is probably best. Wipe or brush after meals and at bedtime. But be gentle – baby teeth are soft. Light brush or wipe the tongue, too, since it harbours germs (but brush only the front of the tongue; going too far back can trigger gagging).
No toothpaste is necessary for baby’s teeth, though you can flavour the brush with a tiny bit of toothpaste (use one that’s formulated for infants and toddlers and that doesn’t contain fluoride) if it makes her more interested in brushing. If you’re fluoridated toothpaste, add only a pea-size dab to the brush. Many babies love the taste of toothpaste, and since they swallow instead of spitting it out once the brushing’s done, they could end up taking in too much fluoride.
Most older babies and toddlers are eager to ‘do it themselves’. Once she has the dexterity, which won’t be for many months yet, you can let your baby brush on her own after meals, adding a more thorough cleaning with a gauze pad or finger brush yourself as part of the bedtime ritual. Also let her watch you care for your own teeth. If mummy and daddy set a good dental-care example, she’s more likely to be a more conscientious brusher and, later, flosser.
Though brushing and flossing will continue to be important throughout your baby’s life, proper nutrition will have equal impact on her dental health, starting now (actually, it started before she was born). Ensuring the adequate intake of calcium, phosphorous, fluoride and other minerals and vitamins (particularly vitamin C, which helps to maintain the health of gums) and limiting foods high in refined sugars (including commercial teething biscuits) or sticky natural sugar (such as dried fruit, even raisins) can help prevent the miseries that accompany a mouthful of cavities and bleeding gums. Ideally, limit sweets (even healthy ones) to once or twice a day, since the more sugar intake is spread out over the day, the greater the risk to the teeth. Serve them with meals, when they do less damage to the teeth, rather than between meals. Or brush baby’s teeth right after the sweets are eaten.
When your baby does have sweets or snacks high in carbohydrates between meals and a brush isn’t available, follow them with a piece of cheese,(such as Gruyere or Cheddar, once introduced), which seems to be able to block the action of tooth-decaying acids produced by the bacteria in plaque. For further tooth insurance, get your baby used to drinking juice only from a cup now (serve it watered down and only with meals and snacks, not in between), and never let her go to sleep with a bottle. Limit sippy cups use, too.
In addition to good home care and good nutrition, your baby will need good professional dental care to ensure healthy teeth in healthy gums. Now, before an emergency arises, ask your baby’s doctor to recommend a reliable pediatric dentist or a general dentist who treats a lot of children and is good with them. If you have a question about your baby’s teeth, call or make an appointment as soon as it comes up.
The first routine checkup should take place between the first and second birthday (between age six months and one year for infants at high risk for tooth decay – such as those babies who habitually fall asleep with a bottle of juice or formula, who do a lot of nighttime or naptime nipping, or who spend much of the day with a bottle in their mouths). The earlier the dental visit, the better chances of preventing dental problems (and dentist-office phobias common in older toddlers visiting a dentist for the first time). Widely spaced teeth, which usually move closer later, are rarely a cause for early intervention.
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