Simple Steps To Better Dental Health
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Featuring consumer information from Columbia School of Dental & Oral Surgery
Oral Health Made Simple: Your Prescription For Knowledge
Small BoxAll About Cavities
Small BoxBrushing and Flossing
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Small BoxMouth-Healthy Eating
Small BoxSealants
Small BoxTaking Care of Your Teeth
Small BoxTobacco
Small BoxYour Dental Visit
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Small BoxBad Breath
Small BoxCavities
Small BoxCold Sores
Small BoxDry Mouth
Small BoxImpacted Tooth
Small BoxSensitive Teeth
Small BoxTMJ
Small BoxTooth Discoloration
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Small BoxCrowns
Small BoxDentures
Small BoxFillings: The Basics
Small BoxGum Surgery
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Small BoxScaling and Root Planing
Small BoxWhitening
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Small BoxControlling Pain
Small BoxCosmetic Dentistry
Small BoxEmergencies
Small BoxFill, Repair, Replace
Small BoxKids And Teens
Small BoxOral Health and Your Body
Small BoxOrthodontics
Small BoxPeriodontics
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Step 1 Prevent ProblemsSimplestepsPrevent Problems
Step 2 Understand ConditionsSimplestepsUnderstand Conditions
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Your Child's Mouth

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space placeholder. The Primary Teeth.
space placeholder. Caring for Primary Teeth.
space placeholder. Early Childhood Caries.
space placeholder. The Permanent Teeth.
space placeholder. Caring for Permanent Teeth.
space placeholder. Diet and Your Child's Teeth.
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space placeholder. The Primary Teeth
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When infants are born, almost all of their primary (baby) teeth already have formed. These teeth are still hidden in the gums. They usually begin to erupt or cut through the gums at about 6 months of age. Some babies get teeth earlier, and some get them later. That's OK. Your 1-year-old may have a different number of teeth than your neighbor's 1-year-old.

Usually, the two front bottom teeth come in first. Next are the four front top teeth and two more bottom teeth. From here, teeth slowly begin to fill the mouth. Teeth usually come in two at a time, one on either side of the jaw. Your child should have all 20 primary teeth by the time he or she turns 3 years old.

Baby teeth usually have spaces between them. These spaces help make sure there is enough room for the permanent teeth. In fact, lack of space between the baby teeth can sometimes mean that adult teeth will be "crowded" or not have enough space to come in.

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space placeholder. Caring for Primary Teeth
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Take good care of your child's baby teeth. They do eventually fall out. But until they do, baby teeth play an important role by helping your child bite and chew food, and speak clearly. Baby teeth also save space for the permanent teeth, and help guide them into place.

Even before the first tooth appears, begin wiping your child's gums with a clean damp gauze or washcloth. Unless your dentist recommends otherwise, start using a toothpaste with fluoride on your child's teeth as soon as they come into the mouth. Fluoride helps to prevent cavities.

For children who are younger than 3 years, use only a "smear" of toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) on the bristles of the toothbrush. For children who are 3 to 6 years old, the amount of toothpaste can be increased to a pea-size amount.

Using too much toothpaste puts your child at risk of developing white or brown spots on the permanent teeth (called fluorosis). Until children are able to brush their own teeth correctly, it is important that they are supervised while brushing. Young children also should be encouraged to spit out any excess toothpaste to avoid accidental swallowing.

As soon as two teeth touch each other, floss between them once a day. You can use regular floss or special plastic floss holders.

Talk to your doctor or dentist about fluoride. Children need extra fluoride if they:

  • Have a high risk of developing cavities AND
  • Drink water that does not contain enough fluoride.

Children in this high-risk group will need to have fluoride treatments and take fluoride supplements.

At some point, your child will want to use the toothbrush. It's OK to give him or her a turn. But afterward you should always brush your child's teeth a second time. Most children won't be able to brush their teeth well on their own until they are about 8 years old, but certainly no earlier than age 6.

Children who are at high risk for cavities can get sealants placed on their teeth. Dental sealants are plastic coverings that are placed over the grooves of teeth to protect them from decay.

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space placeholder. Early Childhood Caries
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Early childhood caries, or ECC, is a serious form of cavities. It can quickly destroy your child's teeth. In the past it has been called baby bottle tooth decay, nursing caries or nursing bottle syndrome. ECC often occurs when your baby's teeth are exposed to sugars for long periods throughout the day. Baby bottles or sippy cups with fruit juice or milk both contain sugars. So does breast milk. When these liquids are in the mouth, bacteria start eating the sugars and then produce acids. These acids cause decay if they remain on teeth long enough.

Early childhood caries can occur if your child:

  • Is put to bed with a bottle filled with any liquid other than plain water
  • Drinks from a bottle filled with sugary liquids or milk during the day
  • Receives a pacifier dipped in sugar, honey or a sweet liquid
  • Breastfeeds throughout the night

Normal breastfeeding has not been shown to cause dental cavities. However, breastfeeding for long periods of time can still put your child at higher risk for dental decay.

Remember, it's not just what your baby is drinking, it's also how often. The more time that liquids (other than water) are in a baby's mouth, the higher the risk. This is why it is dangerous to let your baby go to sleep with a bottle or use a bottle as a pacifier during the day.

Tooth decay can occur much more easily if there are large numbers of cavity-causing bacteria living in your child's mouth. One of the most dangerous types of cavity-causing bacteria is Streptococcus mutans. In the mouths of children with no or little tooth decay, S. mutans makes up less than 1% of the mouth's bacteria. But in children with ECC, it makes up more than half the bacteria.

S. mutans is common. It is passed from parent to child, usually when a child is between 6 and 31 months old. Keeping your own mouth healthy and free of cavities can help your child's mouth stay healthier, too.

The top front teeth usually are the first ones affected by ECC. Often, the cavities start on the backs of the teeth. The top teeth farther back in the mouth are affected next. Finally, the bottom back teeth get cavities. The lower front teeth usually do not get cavities. These teeth are covered by the tongue, which keeps liquids away. These teeth also are close to large salivary glands, so they are bathed in saliva. Saliva helps wash away sugars and bacteria.

Decayed teeth that are not fixed can cause pain and infection. Teeth that are very badly decayed may need to be removed. Tooth decay is a bacterial infection, and it can spread if it is not treated. Also, the permanent teeth under the gum can be affected if the decay is not treated.

Here are some tips on preventing early childhood caries:

  • Don't put your baby to bed with a bottle unless it is filled with plain water. Even watered-down fruit juice or milk can increase the risk of decay.
  • Talk with your doctor about weaning your infant from the bottle or breast at age 12 to 14 months.
  • During the day, don't use a bottle to comfort your baby unless it's filled with plain water.
  • Don't dip your baby's pacifier in sugar or sugary liquids
  • Don't add sugar to your child's food.
  • Clean your baby's teeth and gums with a damp cloth or a soft toothbrush after each feeding.
  • Take your baby to the dentist as soon as the first tooth comes in, or no later than the first birthday.
  • Teach your baby to drink from a cup by his or her first birthday.
  • Make sure your baby is getting the right amount of fluoride. If your drinking water does not contain fluoride and your child has a high risk of cavities, ask your doctor or dentist about fluoride supplements.
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space placeholder. The Permanent Teeth
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Children typically start to lose their baby teeth and replace them with adult teeth when they are 6 or 7 years old. Some children start losing teeth earlier. Others start later. The order that your child's permanent teeth come in is more important than when they start to come in.

Most often, the first permanent teeth to come in are the two lower middle teeth (central incisors). However, some children get their first permanent molars (sometimes called the 6-year molars) first.

The 6-year molars come in behind the primary teeth. They do not replace primary teeth. Around age 11 or 12, the second permanent molars (also called 12-year molars) come in behind the 6-year molars.

By the time your child is 13 years old, most of his permanent teeth will be in place. Wisdom teeth, or third molars, come in between ages 17 and 21. However, some people don't get any wisdom teeth, or don't get all four. More often, wisdom teeth develop, but there may not be room in the mouth for them.

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space placeholder. Caring for Permanent Teeth
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You should continue to help your children brush their teeth twice a day until they can show that they can do a good job on their own. For most children, this occurs between ages 6 and 8. Brush after breakfast and before bed. Keep your children's teeth free of food, especially the molars. Molars have lots of little grooves and crevices. Bits of food can hide there and act as food for bacteria.

Your dentist also can place sealants on your children's molars to protect them from decay. But it's still important to brush and floss.

When your child is still very young, you can cradle his head in one of your arms and use your other hand to brush. Once children have the coordination and dexterity, they can brush on their own. However, be sure to inspect after each brushing and go over spots your child may have missed.

A few other tips:

  • Use a soft nylon toothbrush with a pea-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste.
  • Teach your child to spit out the foamy saliva.
  • Begin flossing your child's teeth daily as soon as any teeth are touching each other.
  • After age 9, children should be able to floss their own teeth. Flossing removes bits of food and plaque between teeth, where a toothbrush can't reach.
  • Talk to your child's dentist or doctor to be sure he or she is getting the right amount of fluoride.
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space placeholder. Diet and Your Child's Teeth
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For healthy teeth, how often your child eats is just as important as what she eats. Frequent snacking can increase a child's risk of decay.

Cavities can develop when sugar-containing foods are allowed to stay in the mouth for a long time. Bacteria that live in the mouth feast on these bits of food. They create acid, which eats away at tooth enamel. Between meals or snacks, saliva washes away the acid. If your child is eating frequently, there may not be time for this acid to get washed away.

When most people think of sugar, they think of the white sugar that is found in candy and baked goods. But all foods that contain carbohydrates will ultimately break down into sugars. Bacteria don't care whether you eat a lollipop or a pretzel. It tastes the same to them!

Here are a few tips for snacking and mealtime:

  • Give your child healthy snack foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
  • Buy foods that are sugar-free or unsweetened.
  • Serve sugary or starchy foods as part of a meal rather than as a snack. Most children drink liquids during a meal. This will wash many bits of food off the teeth. Saliva also does a good job of clearing the teeth.
  • Avoid certain foods unless your child plans to brush right after he or she eats them. These foods get between teeth and are hard to remove from the grooves in the tooth surface. Some of these foods include:
    • Cookies
    • Dried figs
    • Granola bars
    • Jelly beans
    • Doughnuts
    • Potato chips
    • Pretzels
    • Puffed oat cereal
    • Raisins
  • Offer fewer snacks.
  • After your child snacks, make sure his or her teeth are brushed. If this isn't possible, have your child rinse with water several times.
  • Encourage your child to choose xylitol-sweetened or sugar-free gum.
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  See Also . . .
A Parent's Guide to Tooth Eruption
Are You Feeding Your Kids Tooth-Friendly Foods?
Brushing and Flossing: An Animated Demo
Early Orthodontics May Mean Less Treatment Later
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