Last updated on Feb 2nd, 2021 at 12:29 pm

There are a few essential things dentists wants you to know from the minute your child gets his first tooth. The World Health Organization bills tooth decay as the most prevalent disease in the world – more common than the common cold. There’s not too much you can do to avoid your little one catching a dose of the sniffles, but tooth decay is a 100% preventable.

ALSO SEE: 5 toddler teeth myths busted 

Here are 10 important things dentists want you to know about caring for your baby and toddler’s teeth.

1. Milk teeth are important

Yes, ultimately, your child’s milk teeth will all fall out, but before they do, having strong, healthy teeth is essential. They play an obvious role in nutrition – chewing being one of the first steps in digestion – as well as in speech development.

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Additionally, they’re essential to the normal development of the jawbone and facial muscles. Every time your child chews, this stimulates facial muscle and jaw development – the jaw development that ultimately creates the space needed for the adult teeth, explains Alisha Naidoo, dentist and lecturer at Wits School of Oral Health Sciences.

Milk teeth also act as space holders for the adult teeth. Removing a decayed milk tooth means that its neighbour could drift or tilt into the gap. When the adult tooth makes its way to the surface, it may consequently rotate, migrate to the wrong position, or even remain permanently buried beneath the gum.

The longshot of all of this is expensive orthodontic treatment. Also, your child’s smile is arguably his most engaging facial expression, and it can cause a dent in his confidence to flash blackened stumps rather than pearly whites in moments of mirth, advises Janet Gritzman, dentist and president of the Paedodontic Society of South Africa.

2. Focus on hygiene 

Dental hygiene should begin at birth, at the first bath, says Janet. Using a moistened soft gauze pad or moistened, clean cloth wrapped around the finger, gently wipe the gum pads of baby’s mouth as part of his daily bath routine.

ALSO SEE: How (and why) to clean your baby’s tongue

3. Watch out for prolonged bottle feeding

The breast or bottle may seem indispensable to your night-time routine. Nevertheless, after the first tooth emerges, all three paediatric dentistry associations – the British, American and the European – recommend weaning from night-time feeds that act as a sleep aid or to pacify, advises Alisha.

When your baby falls asleep with a bottle or breast in his mouth, the milk pools in the mouth and coats the teeth. Instead of swallowing the milk and ‘washing’ the teeth with saliva, the primary decay forming bacteria in the mouth – Streptococcus mutans – then changes the milk sugars (lactose) into acid. This in turn dissolves the enamel of the teeth, causing decay, explains dentist Marlon Chetty.

The arrival of baby’s first tooth, around six months, often coincides with the introduction of solids. Now that your baby stays fuller for longer, sleep time can be gradually separated from feeding time.

Six months of age is also a good time to start introducing a cup and persisting with it until your baby becomes comfortable with handling and drinking from it – somewhere between 12 to 14 months of age. But if your child has developed what seems to be an unbreakable bottle habit, fill it with only fresh water, recommends Marlon.

ALSO SEE: 7 tips to wean your toddler off her bedtime bottle

4. See your dentist before your baby turns one

Fear is the number one problem when it comes to working on toddlers, so all paediatric dentistry associations recommend that your child’s first visit to the dentist should be within six months of their first tooth emerging, or by their first birthday – even if your child has good, healthy teeth.

An early visit, rather than a visit because of pain and tooth decay, offers your child the opportunity to get used to the dental environment. It also gives your dentist a chance to build rapport with your child, which in turn makes it easier to do dental procedures, shares Janet.

Thereafter, children should see the dentist every six months. Regular appointments will ensure that problems are picked up early.

Please don’t threaten your children with a trip to the dentist, stresses Janet. Making the dentist into the ‘bad guy’ only makes check-ups trickier.

ALSO SEE: 9 common baby teeth care questions answered 

5. If you suspect decay, act quickly

Pain, sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet food and drinks; and pressure sensitivity, are all signs of tooth decay, warns Marlon.

Dental decay, an infection of the tooth caused by bacteria, will continue to get bigger and spread from tooth to tooth, if left untreated.

If you suspect tooth decay or have noticed white-spot discolouration (a precursor to decay), it’s important that restorative work is done as soon as possible, regardless of your toddler’s age.

6. Help your tot brush his teeth

Toddlers and young children don’t have the manual dexterity to brush properly. You’ll have to supervise and/or brush for them until they are at least six years old, though it’s preferable to stay involved for as long as possible, says Janet.

7. Serve meals and snacks with water

Some foods ‘feed’ decay forming bacteria more than others. Carbohydrates – from wholesome carbs like cereals and high-fibre crackers, to high-sugar foods such as chewy sweets, cookies and cake (that offer a lot of refined sugar with very little nutritional value) offer bacteria a veritable feast.

The potential for tooth decay increases considerably when these foods stick to our teeth, because the acid-producing bacteria then remain on the tooth surface for a long time, causing those areas of the tooth to decay.

Nonetheless, wholesome carbohydrates are an essential part of our diet, so offer him water when serving snacks like breads, crackers, pasta and dried fruit. The water ‘dilutes’ the acidity and can dislodge stuck food. Nibbling on some hard cheese after a meal also helps ‘push’ sticky food matter from the teeth, advises Alisha.

As for the tough, chewy sweets, opt for chocolate instead at weekends or treat-times only, followed by water.

8. Drink juice through a straw

Fruit juices and other sweetened juices, especially fizzy drinks, contain both acid and sugar – a particularly nasty combination for teeth that causes rapid demineralisation of the tooth structure. It’s best to completely avoid offering these drinks in his bottle, especially before he goes to sleep at night, advises Janet.

Also, if only water isn’t viable, then opt for a straw when drinking juice, because it shortens the time that the teeth are exposed to sugar and acid.

9. Frequent snacking can cause cavities

Imagine a long car ride: first on offer is a bag of chips. This is followed by dried fruit at the next squawk, and then fruit juice just before a full-blown tantrum erupts. Finally, before your little one nods off, he tucks into some crackers and a fruit roll. This continual ‘grazing’ constantly feeds the acid-producing bacteria that cause tooth decay and is ultimately worse for your baby’s teeth than the occasional sugary treat.

It’s the frequency of sugar and carb snacking that causes more damage to teeth than the volume of sugar consumed, explains Janet. So offer fresh vegetables, dairy and lean protein snacks like nuts and turkey, more frequently than starch or sugar.

To combat sweet grazing at parties, brush his teeth before and after.

10. It’s all in the technique

Brushing properly is more important than brushing for a long time. Make sure you brush all the surfaces of the teeth – top, front and behind.

Tips for taming toothbrush wars:

  • Start early by cleaning your baby’s gums with gauze. It can make it easier to transition to tooth-brushing.
  • If your baby won’t let you brush his first teeth, then try using tooth wipes until he becomes more comfortable with an oral hygiene routine, suggests Marlon.
  • Babies love to imitate. Let them watch you brushing your teeth. Model fun and enjoyment.
  • Let older toddlers choose their own toothbrush.
  • Choose a toothpaste flavour that your child likes.
  • For older toddlers, try a toothbrush hunt prior to tooth brushing. Turning the activity into a treasure hunt with a prize of pearly whites, can diffuse a fight.