Looking after your baby’s teeth might seem like another chore. Here we speak with a dentist to find out just how important caring for milk teeth is.
We asked Philippa McNee, dentist and mum to William, five years, and Henry, two years, some key questions. We asked her about why you need to look after your baby’s teeth and how (alongside brushing) you can help keep their pegs perfect, just like them.
Q1. Why is it important to look after a baby or toddler’s teeth, if they’re going to fall out and be replaced anyway?
That’s a very good question. Looking after their milk teeth is important because they need these teeth until they are between six and 13 years old. That’s when milk teeth start to be lost and replaced by the adult teeth.
A good daily brushing habit, started young, will ensure children understand the importance of looking after their teeth — now and forever. If teeth are not cared for, they can decay and cause pain, abscesses, facial swelling, and will ultimately require treatment.
Q2. Right, can you tell us about brushing?
Your baby’s teeth need brushing twice daily for two minutes ideally, although we know that long can be tricky to achieve sometimes. Adults should carry out the brushing until six years of age and ideally support them and observe their brushing after that. Do this until you’re confident they’re able to brush effectively themselves.
Using a fluoride toothpaste once the first tooth appears can help to protect from tooth decay and strengthen their enamel (Holtzman, 2009; NHS, 2015). Just a smear will do and they should spit it out ideally.
The amount of fluoride in toothpaste is important and is measured in parts per million (ppm). Up until they are six years old, as long as they don’t have tooth decay, they can use a lower strength fluoride toothpaste of 1000 ppm (NHS, 2015). And from six plus, 1350 ppm to 1500 ppm (NHS, 2015). From three use a pea-sized amount (NHS, 2015). You can usually see these figures on the side of the tube and most of them say which age they’re appropriate for to make it easier for you.
Try using an electric toothbrush with a two-minute timer from three and a half to four years. This can really help to keep them interested and brush their teeth more effectively. Just be careful not to press too hard on their gums. You could also try playing a two-minute song, that’s a real way to make teeth cleaning fun.
Q3. What about their diet and sugar intake?
Milk and water are the best drinks for them to have. A simple rule is to be wary of any coloured drink, it will be bad for teeth (either erosive or decay causing). Avoid brushing for 30 minutes after an acidic drink like orange juice as there is an increased risk of erosion.
Avoid sugary snacks between meals. Teeth can cope with three sugar intakes a day — breakfast, lunch and dinner. But if sugar is eaten in between meals, the mouth and saliva will become acidic for most of the day, which bacteria love. This happens because it takes two hours for sugary, acidic saliva to neutralise again (which the bacteria hate) after sugar intake.
So if your child sips on sugary drinks and snacks on sugary treats throughout the day, their mouth will always be acidic. And those decay-causing bacteria can munch holes in their teeth all day. Bad news.
Stick to safe snacks. Cheese, milk, crackers, vegetable sticks, hummus and bananas are all ‘good’ snacks I’d recommend for your little one. There is still sugar in fruit but less decay causing sugar than in processed foods. Having said that, avoid giving them chewy dried fruits. A small box of raisins, for example, contains the same amount of sugar as a can of full fat coke.
Q4. Is anything like a dummy or drinking from certain cups or bottles bad for their teeth?
A dummy should be discouraged as soon as you feel able to. Eventually try to reduce use or remove the dummy completely. Why? It can change the position of teeth and then the issue becomes harder to overcome without a trip to the orthodontist.
The same goes for thumb sucking. Try to remove their thumb-sucking habit when they are under one year old as they’ll likely be too strong willed after that.
For this same reason, it’s also not a good idea to let them have milk in a bottle or sippy cup at night after their first birthday. And definitely don’t leave them in their cot with milk in a bottle. Sadly, we see many cases of decay in the front milk teeth as a result of this night-time habit.
We recommend water ONLY if they need to drink during the night and avoiding putting anything other than milk or water in their bottle or sippy cup to prevent decay.
Q5. What happens if one of their teeth is damaged — if they fall over for example?
This can be really traumatic for parents to see as well as for your little one to experience. Make sure you go to the dentist as soon as possible. If a milk tooth is pushed inwards by a fall it can damage the adult tooth.
Q6. How often should I take them to the dentist and from what age?
Why not start taking them as soon as their first tooth erupts? Especially as you get free NHS dental treatment. It will get them used to the experience of visiting the dentist. They can just come and sit in the chair while the rest of the family have a check-up. By building upon their positive experiences slowly, any fear factor or worry about visiting the dentist will be reduced. Plus, they will love the stickers.
This page was last reviewed in September 2018.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
You may find this film on how to brush your baby’s teeth, produced by the NHS, useful.
And this NHS guide to your child’s teeth.
Great Ormond Street Hospital has also provided this useful leaflet on caring for your child’s teeth.
NCT has partnered with the British Red Cross to offer courses in baby first aid.
Holtzman J. (2009) Simple, effective — and inexpensive — strategies to reduce tooth decay in children. ICAN: Infant, Child and Adolescent Nutrition. 1(4): 225-231.
NHS. (2015) Children’s teeth. Available: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/taking-care-of-childrens-teeth/ [Accessed Oct 2018]