Babies aren’t born with teeth, but it’s never too soon to start thinking about your baby’s dental care. Besides introducing good habits from the very beginning, taking care of your baby’s mouth keeps them healthier and happier as they grow. Even before their first dental visit — which should happen at one year or within six months of their first tooth eruption — your job as a parent is to keep your child’s mouth healthy and introduce them to good oral hygiene.
As a parent, it can be overwhelming to think of incorporating yet another item into your baby’s daily routine. But learning how to brush a baby’s teeth will have lifelong benefits for your child.
Wondering where to start? You aren’t alone. Even experienced parents find themselves swapping ideas for how to coax a little one to use a toothbrush. But what comes before that? And how important is oral hygiene for a baby? Keep reading for the scoop on baby brushing!
Should I Brush My Baby’s Gums?
The short answer to this question is YES! It’s never too early to begin brushing your little one’s mouth. Even before their first tooth breaks through their gums, bacteria form in their mouth. Where do bacteria come from? Sugars in formula or breast milk are the culprits. When the sugars sit on baby’s gums, they can produce bacteria. While everyone has some bacteria in their mouth, your goal should be to prevent bacteria from forming en masse because these can cause dental problems down the road.
During these early months, it’s also crucial to avoid allowing your baby to fall asleep with a bottle of milk or juice. When a baby falls asleep drinking fluids, it allows the drinks to sit in their mouth longer, which can lead to increased bacteria and problems later on.
Oral Hygiene for Babies
One of the best ways to set your little one up for oral hygiene success is to establish a baby dental care routine from the very beginning. Besides laying the groundwork for good hygiene habits later, it’s a fantastic way for parents to interact with their little one. Cleaning your baby’s mouth can also become a special time for snuggling and bonding with your child.
The goals of this routine should be to:
- Establish a habit of brushing at least twice a day.
- Keep baby’s mouth clean.
- Help baby get used to the feeling of having a clean mouth.
These goals are simple enough, but many parents aren’t sure when to start brushing baby’s teeth and gums, or how to teach a baby to brush teeth.
1. 0-6 Months
When your baby is born, they don’t have teeth, so there’s no reason to use an actual toothbrush and toothpaste for cleaning a newborn’s mouth. But brushing their gums is a great way to establish the habit of cleaning their mouth regularly. When it comes to how to brush baby’s gums, there’s not much to it. After a feeding, take a clean, damp washcloth or baby gum brush and gently run your index finger over your baby’s gums. Since newborns eat several times a day, aim to do this at least twice daily — just as they would if they were brushing.
While a washcloth will do the job just fine for brushing newborn gums, you could also try using terrycloth finger cots. These disposable finger covers are soft and do a great job of cleaning baby’s gums. You can find them in just about any drugstore.
On average, babies will get their first tooth around six months of age. The weeks leading up to that first tooth may be full of drooling, chewing and discomfort for your baby. While it may be tempting to pull back from regular gum cleanings, this isn’t the time to back off your baby oral care routine. It becomes even more essential than ever. Why?
First of all, these are signs your baby’s teeth are on their way. Once their first tooth arrives, brushing takes on a new level of importance. Second, as you’re cleaning baby’s mouth, you can also gently massage their tender, teething gums. Applying gentle pressure to their inflamed gums can go a long way toward easing the pain and discomfort of teething.
One thing to remember: Because dental decay comes from bacteria that live in the mouth, it’s possible to pass this on to your child. The last thing you want is to share bacteria with your child that will harm their teeth and gums. So, refrain from sharing cups or utensils, don’t clean their pacifier off in your mouth and never use your mouth to test the temperature of their bottle.
2. 6-12 Months
Most children will start cutting teeth during this crucial time of their development, so you’ll continue to encounter a lot of drool and the tendency to chew on everything. Now that teeth are coming in, it’s time to schedule baby’s first dental cleaning. Since tooth decay doesn’t discriminate by age, the American Dental Association recommends children receive their first visit to a dentist within six months of cutting their first tooth or by their first birthday, whichever comes first.
During this phase, you’ll also want to begin to wean your child off a bottle and onto a cup. Bottles in and of themselves are not bad. However, as babies become more mobile, parents tend to allow their child to move around with their bottle and sip on it at their leisure. This habit increases their mouth’s exposure to the sugars in formula, breastmilk and juice, and places them at higher risk for tooth decay.
As soon as your baby is old enough to hold a cup, begin the transition to a sippy cup. But don’t allow them to sip on a cup the way they would a bottle. Now is also a great time to start establishing a routine when it comes to drinks and snacks. Don’t allow them to hold onto the cup for prolonged periods. If they’re thirsty, place them in their high chair, allow them to drink until they’re satisfied, then take the cup away. And, as we mentioned before, resist the temptation to allow your child to fall asleep with a bottle or a cup. If you’re struggling to find ways to help your child soothe themselves to sleep, there are plenty of other ways to help your child fall asleep.
When Should I Start Brushing Baby’s Teeth?
Until your baby cuts their first tooth, stick to the gum-washing method described above. There’s no reason to use a toothbrush yet, and, truthfully, using one on their bare gums might not feel very pleasant. Wondering when to start brushing baby’s teeth?
Once your baby cuts their first tooth, it’s time to switch to a soft-bristled brush designed specifically for infants and young toddlers. But don’t stop washing their gums! Even once their first tooth arrives, your baby’s gums will still experience exposure to anything they place in their mouth. Washing their gums as part of your regular oral hygiene routine is essential until they have more teeth covering the area of their gums. It will also help ease their discomfort as their teeth continue to break through their gums.
Once your baby’s first tooth arrives, it’s time to schedule their first dental appointment. Some parents might think this is unusual because they are picturing the dentist hovering over their tiny baby with an electric toothbrush. But this isn’t what happens at baby’s first dental visit. The purpose of the first visit to the dentist is to establish good baby dental care habits, check the baby’s oral health and set a baseline for later on. It also helps encourage your child not to be nervous around the dentist as they get older.
Establishing your child with a pediatric dentist is also an excellent way to emphasize your commitment to their oral health. Pediatric dentists have a lot of experience treating children, which means they’re a fantastic resource for parents because they know all sorts of things about kids’ teeth! They’re also committed to your child’s long-term oral health, which means they spend a lot of time helping them get comfortable with dental visits, brushing and the basics of good oral hygiene.
How to Brush Baby’s Teeth
Brushing your baby’s teeth should be a simple process, but it can often become a stressful one for parents. Babies squirm, fuss or fall asleep before they should. They protest having things in their mouth or try to grab the toothbrush for a closer look. So what’s a parent to do?
First, and most crucially, relax. Your baby’s oral hygiene is critical, but it’s not something to lose sleep over. Since you’re reading an article about how to clean baby teeth, you’ve already proven you care.
Now that you’re relaxed, let us answer some of the most common questions we get about how to keep baby’s teeth clean.
1. When Should You Use Toothpaste for Babies?
Before baby cuts their first tooth, wipe their gums down with a clean, damp washcloth. There’s no need to use toothpaste or any other products in their mouth. Once your baby begins to cut teeth, you’ll want to switch to a soft-bristled toothbrush. Initially, you can stick with water, but once they have several teeth, that’s when to start adding a tiny smear of toothpaste for babies’ brushing routine.
There are specific kinds of toothpaste designed for young children, but many of these do not contain fluoride, a mineral that can prevent tooth decay. In the past, dentists recommended children under the age of 2 use fluoride-free toothpaste. The American Academy of Pediatrics has updated those guidelines to allow for fluoride toothpaste at all ages, as long as you use it sparingly and under direct parental supervision. It is safe (and recommended) that you use of “smear” (or size of a grain of rice) of fluoride toothpaste as soon as your baby has teeth.
2. What Kind of Toothbrush Should My Child Use?
Some parents prefer to transition from a washcloth to a soft-bristled toothbrush, while others prefer to ease the transition by using silicone baby finger toothbrushes. Finger toothbrushes for babies have nubs on them that help clean teeth and feel good on baby’s gums as well. Once your child is ready for a baby toothbrush, there are plenty of options to start with. Children’s toothbrushes have clear labels stating the age and stage they’re best for, so you won’t be clueless in the middle of the drugstore. Toothbrushes for babies and younger toddlers often have a broader handle that’s easy to grip, and they come in a wide array of colors and characters to encourage little ones to brush. While silicone brushes are fun and comfortable for the gums, they are not as efficient as nylon-bristle brush at removing plaque from the teeth.
3. How Do I Brush My Baby’s Teeth?
The easiest way to brush you baby’s teeth is to have him lay down— floor, bed, changing table, or crib. If your baby is laying down and his head is supported, it allows you to have one free hand to lift the lips and cheeks out of the way, while the other hand brushes the teeth. Be sure to get the front surfaces, as well as the hard-to-see back surfaces and grooves. Babies can get gingivitis just like adults, so be sure to brush along their gum line to lower their risk of bleeding gums and gum disease. Because babies are often squirmy, it may take two adults to get the job done— one adult to hold the baby, and the other whose job is to focus solely on brushing.
4. What Should I Do If My Child Doesn’t Want to Brush?
As your baby becomes more active and transitions into toddlerhood, convincing them to stay still long enough to brush their teeth is a challenge. But that doesn’t mean oral hygiene should fall by the wayside! If you’re struggling to hold your child’s attention during brushing, consider these tips:
- Allow your child to pick out their toothbrush or purchase one with images of their favorite TV character.
- Keep things fun — incorporate a silly song or dance into your routine, or watch a video of their favorite TV character brushing their teeth.
Above all else, stay calm. If you get upset or frustrated, your child will start to dread their brushing routine because they know it’s the time their dad or mom loses it. The point of brushing at this age is to establish healthy habits. And that’s hard to do when everyone is stressed out and crying.
Dental Care for Infants and Toddlers
As a parent, you set the tone for how your child will approach oral hygiene as they grow. When you make it a priority, they’ll learn to make it a priority too. It’s not difficult or time-consuming to incorporate brushing into your infant’s routine — and it can save a lot of pain and struggle for your child if you do.
At Sprout Pediatric Dentistry & Orthodontics, our goal is to support families through their oral health journey. From the first tooth to braces and everything in between, we love teaching parents and their children how to have a healthy mouth throughout their lifetime. In serving families throughout Portland, we’ve committed to the goal of answering questions and helping you establish a solid dental routine from the beginning.
Just as you’ll need a pediatrician for all your little one’s health needs, we encourage you to find a pediatric dentist who can help you establish a care routine from their early infancy. Because Sprout is a pediatric practice, we have lots of ways to teach little ones how to relax at the dentist and to love brushing their teeth. And we love sharing those tips with parents because we know how essential it is.
Call us today to set up your baby’s first dental appointment.
Dr. Dana grew up in Portland, and went to Temple University in Philadelphia, PA for dental school. She then moved to Anchorage, AK for her residency in Pediatric Dentistry. Dr. Dana takes a holistic approach to pediatric dentistry & is able to use her own parenting experience to sympathize and understand each family’s unique dynamic.