What You Need to Know About Tooth Care for Kids

Your child’s mouth is a dark, mysterious place (for both of you). So how do you help him develop solid dental habits? Here are answers to your most gnawing questions.

Photo by Russ and Reyn

Taking care of your kids’ teeth—brushing, nagging about brushing, flossing, nagging about flossing—is probably one of your least favorite parental jobs. But it’s a necessary evil: Cavities are the single most common chronic childhood disease in America, affecting one in four kids ages 2 to 5. So open wide; here’s a painless pediatric dental checkup.

When Should I Book My Baby’s First Dental Exam?

The official recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) is to schedule a checkup by his first birthday. That said, many dentists admit that this is hard for parents to swallow—especially if only a handful of tiny teeth have come in by then. “Many parents who clean little teeth from the start with tooth wipes, a washcloth, or a soft toothbrush and water often choose to wait until age 2,” says Ruby Gelman, D.M.D., a pediatric dentist in New York City, who points out that your pediatrician will be able to spot any obvious red flags that would require earlier intervention.

Whenever you go, don’t worry that your squirmy toddler won’t be able to sit still in a dentist’s chair or tolerate a stranger poking around in his mouth with metal instruments. These early visits are a lot more about talking than touching, says Ed Moody, D.D.S., the president-elect of the AAPD. The dentist will discuss your family’s dental history, demonstrate how to clean your child’s teeth, and give general tips. For instance, don’t put her to bed with a bottle of milk or juice, which can linger in the mouth all night, causing decay. Think of it like a well-child visit: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fillings.


If My Kids Drink Only Bottled Water, Are They Getting Enough Fluoride?

Ever since American cities began adding fluoride (a mineral that helps prevent the breakdown of enamel) to their water supplies in the mid-1940s, the rate of childhood cavities has decreased by as much as 40 percent, according to the American Dental Association. Still, plenty of kids subsist on bottled water—or, worse, sugary sports drinks and juices—so they’re missing out on that benefit. (As are the 26 percent of Americans who live in communities that don’t add fluoride to their water.) “Your dentist can help you figure out how much fluoride your children are actually getting and come up with a plan to increase it if necessary,” says Moody. Here are a few options.

  • Drink filtered water. If you live in a fluoridated area, skip the bottled H2O and run your tap water through a carbon filter, like the ones made by Brita. It will remove chlorine, copper, and mercury but keep the fluoride in. There are also portable versions by Bobble, essentially reusable sports bottles with a built-in filter, which can replace disposable bottles.

  • Buy enhanced, tooth-friendly bottled water. Bottled water with added fluoride (sold in supermarkets) provides the mineral and has no funny aftertaste.

  • Ask about supplements. For kids living in non-fluoridated areas, who are at high risk for decay, dentists may prescribe chewable fluoride supplements, to be taken once a day after brushing. Just don’t go over the recommended dose. Too much fluoride can lead to dental fluorosis (a condition causing white spots or stains on teeth).

  • Try fluoride toothpaste and rinses. Once your child is able to spit out toothpaste (around age 2), she can start using a smear of fluoride toothpaste on her toothbrush. Following with a fluoride rinse is particularly useful for kids with braces, who might have a hard time getting to each tooth with a brush.