Babies should visit the dentist as early as 6 months and certainly by their first birthday. By age 3, they should be visiting twice a year.
The reason: Kids with healthy teeth chew food easily, learn to speak clearly and smile with confidence. According to the American Dental Association, establishing good oral health habits early on helps put your child on the road to good overall health.
Here are some tips to help your baby maintain a healthy smile:
1 Wipe teeth and gums. Begin brushing your child’s teeth with a toothbrush or soft cloth when the first tooth appears. Until kids are 2 years old, use only water or a tooth-and-gum cleaner without fluoride. "Ideally you would brush after every meal, but right before bed is fine," says Andrea Lederman, a pediatric dentist in Skokie and mother of three. Once kids are about 2 years old, they can start brushing with your help.
2 Prevent baby bottle tooth decay. Once baby teeth start to come in, protect your child from tooth decay. Put him to bed with nothing more than a pacifier or bottle of water. Don’t nurse your child to sleep or put him to bed with a bottle of milk, formula or juice. Any unswallowed liquid in the mouth pools around the upper front teeth and can promote bacteria that produce acids and attack teeth.
3 Break sucking habits. The Chicago-based American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry suggests weaning kids from the bottle by the age of 12 to 14 months and from the pacifier at 18 months. Thumb sucking is normal for infants; most kids stop by age 2. If your child does not, discourage it after age 4. Limit sippy cup use to meal and snack times. According to the academy, prolonged sucking habits can create crowded, crooked teeth or bite problems.
4 Find a pediatric dentist. "We’re the pediatricians of dentistry," says Lederman. "We’re used to treating kids and we can usually make the office visit a smoother experience. It’s the equivalent of seeing a pediatrician vs. a general practitioner or family practitioner."
5 Steer clear of juice. "Juice, soda and other sugary drinks have no redeeming qualities," says Lederman. "The sugar and acid eat away teeth, and filling up on juice prevents kids from eating meals." If you do offer juice, ensure it’s 100 percent fruit juice and water it down, she advises. Water and milk are better choices.
6 Choose snacks wisely. Kids need a balanced diet for teeth to develop properly. Offer well-rounded meals and nutritious snacks.
7 Avoid sticky foods. They are not easily washed off the teeth by saliva, water or milk, so they have great cavity-causing potential. Chocolate, ice cream, yogurt and pudding pops are better, says Mary Tierney, a pediatric dentist at Pine Dental Care in Chicago. They melt or wash away fairly easily. If your child does eat gummies, have him rinse or brush afterward.
8 Keep fluoride in water. Tap water typically has enough fluoride to keep teeth healthy. However, some water filters or purifiers take out most, if not all, of the fluoride in tap water. And, unless specifically marked, bottled water contains no fluoride.
Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago writer and mom of two girls.