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Taking Care Of Baby's Teeth

It's never too early to teach your child proper dental hygiene.

Dr. Nancy Rosen, a New York City dentist, offers advice on The Saturday Early Show on how to to keep your child's teeth cavity-free and pearly white.

A child's primary teeth, sometimes called "baby teeth," are as important as the permanent adult teeth.

Primary teeth, which often begin to appear when children are about 6 months old, help them chew and speak. They also hold space in the jaws for permanent teeth that are developing under the gums.

The front four teeth usually erupt first, beginning as early as 6 months after birth. If your infant doesn't have any teeth yet, Dr. Rosen says it is important to get in the habit of gently cleaning your infant's gums with a damp washcloth or piece of gauze. "Do it twice a day if you can."

As for concerns regarding thumb sucking habits or using pacifiers, Dr. Rosen says, "Most kids grow out of them by the age of 4 or 5, and usually sucking behaviors don't cause dental problems in babies and young children. It becomes more of a problem in older children when their permanent teeth start to come in."

Most children have a full set of 20 primary teeth by the age of 3 years. The primary teeth generally begin to shed, or fall out, at about 6 years of age. The first of the 32 permanent teeth begin to appear about the same time.

To care for your child's teeth, begin brushing them with a little water as soon as the first tooth appears.

Dr. Rosen says, "Some experts will say as soon as your child has four teeth in row, you should start brushing her teeth. And begin flossing between the teeth as soon as two teeth are touching."

The type of toothbrush kids use should be small, and soft nylon-bristled, Dr. Rosen says. It will be easy to use and get the job done without doing any damage to the gums. She also notes it is important to buy a small toothbrush that the child can easily fit into his or her mouth.

"As long as your child regularly brushes his teeth, it really doesn't matter if you use a manual or electric toothbrush," she says. "Sometimes the fun of using an electric toothbrush will get your child to brush more often…and that's a good thing."

If you are considering using toothpaste before the child is 2 years of age, ask your dentist or physician first.

Dr. Rosen explains it is actually the brushing motion of the toothbrush on the teeth that gets rid of plaque, not the toothpaste itself.

She says, "The fluoride in toothpaste is beneficial for the teeth, otherwise, it's just provides flavor. Most dentists will caution parents to use only a little bit of toothpaste, only about the size of a pea, because young kids tend to swallow it. And you can use whichever brand you like, but try to find one that's approved by the American Dental Association. You may also consider buying one of the toothpastes that are made just for kids. They have flavors that may encourage kids to brush more."

Supervise toothbrushing to make sure children older than 2 years of age use only a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste and avoid swallowing it. Children should be taught to spit out remaining toothpaste and rinse with water after brushing.

Dr. Rosen says, "Usually by the time kids are 7 or 8 years old, they can brush their own teeth. Many kids can't reliably floss their teeth on their own until early adolescence."

As for using a mouthwash, Dr. Rosen says, "If your children are old enough to be able to swish and spit, without swallowing, they can probably use mouthwash. But it's probably not necessary. The most important things for good dental hygiene at home are regular brushing and flossing. You may consider buying an alcohol free mouthwash."

Fluoride rinse helps harden teeth and make them more resistant to decay. Dr. Rosen says, "Many areas have fluoride in the drinking water, which is often adequate for good dental health. However, children between 6 months and 16 years of age who do not drink fluorinated water need to take fluoride supplements in either liquid or tablet form. So talk to your dentist about whether your child needs this. And everyone should be using fluorinated toothpaste."

Parents should be using floss or an interdental cleaner on their children's teeth as soon as any two teeth touch. Cleaning between the teeth is important because it removes plaque where a toothbrush cannot reach. Brush your child's teeth twice a day unless your dentist recommends otherwise.

The ADA recommends that a child be seen by a dentist as soon as his or her first tooth erupts, but at least no later than the first birthday. A dental visit at an early age is a "well baby checkup" for the teeth. Besides checking for tooth decay and other problems, the dentist can demonstrate how to clean the child's teeth properly and how to evaluate any adverse habits such as thumbsucking.

As the permanent molars appear, dental sealants may be recommended. Sealants form a thin barrier that helps protect the chewing surfaces from the effects of decay-causing bacteria.

Help your children maintain a lifelong healthy smile by providing them with a well-balanced diet, limiting snacks, ensuring that they brush twice per day and floss once per day, and scheduling regular dental checkups for them.

A lot of parents are nervous about having their children get dental X-rays. And although, Dr. Rosen admits there is a very small risk, she notes the radiation involved is extremely small and there is also some risk in not getting X-rays. "You could be missing decay or abnormal tooth development that could cause serious problems later on. So talk to your doctor about the pros and cons," she says.