Keeping your baby's teeth clean may not always be easy - when he clamps his jaws shut, it can be difficult to persuade him to open them - but it is very important.
Ideally, you should start cleaning your baby's mouth from birth, using a piece of damp gauze or a soft, damp washcloth to wipe any milk residue from his gums and teeth. It's a good idea to start this early, as it gives your baby time to get used to the whole routine and may make him less likely to object to having his teeth brushed later on!
Once his baby teeth start appearing, it's crucial to clean them carefully at least twice a day. The bacteria that live naturally in your baby's mouth turn the sugars (including natural sugars) from foods into acid. This acid may then attack the enamel of your baby's teeth.
The importance of your baby's first teeth
Although your baby will eventually lose his first teeth, don't be fooled into thinking that caring for them is any less important than caring for his permanent teeth later on.
1. Baby teeth "reserve" a place for the permanent teeth to grow into. If a baby tooth is lost, the permanent teeth may shift, potentially leading to orthodontic problems later on.
2. Babies need their milk teeth in order to learn to speak clearly and correctly.
3. Baby teeth are needed for biting and chewing.
4. The excessive loss of baby teeth due to decay can affect your child's confidence at pre-school level - after all, we all want to look our best!
Choosing a toothbrush
Once your baby has his first tooth, it's time to buy an appropriate toothbrush. A long handled brush with a small head is best at first, as this design makes it easy to reach all parts of your baby's mouth quite easily. The brush should have soft, rounded filaments and should be replaced every 10-12 weeks, or as soon as the filaments start to splay.
Alternatively, you could use the type of infant toothbrush that fits over your finger and some babies do prefer this - but beware if your baby is a biter, as they don't offer much protection to your vulnerable finger!
When your baby is older and wants to hold the brush himself, then buy him a chunkier-handled design, which will be easier for him to hold - although you will still need to do the bulk of the brushing yourself!
Toothpaste and fluoride
You don't have to use toothpaste to clean your baby's teeth - the action of brushing is the most important factor in keeping them clean. If you do use toothpaste, then choose one specifically designed for infants - these usually contain very little fluoride. The American Association of Pediatric Dentistry actually recommends that babies under the age of 2 should receive NO fluoride at all.
Although fluoride can help strengthen the enamel of the teeth, too much of it can lead to fluorosis - a condition which can cause white spots to appear on the permanent teeth. Young babies tend to swallow toothpaste rather than spit it out - if you use an adult toothpaste, then they will be swallowing too much fluoride.
Speak to your child's dentist for more information about the fluoride requirements for your child.
Tips for brushing baby's teeth
1. If your baby is reluctant to open his mouth, try putting a brush in your own mouth - babies love to copy whatever Mum's doing!
2. Try singing a musical scale with your mouth wide open (no-one's looking!) He may try to copy the singing - or he may laugh - but either way, he'll open his mouth!
3. Sit your baby in whatever position works best for you - standing or sitting behind your baby as he looks up is a great position, because it enables you to reach all parts of his mouth very easily.
4. Be gentle - firm brushing isn't necessary at this stage and can put your baby off the whole experience.
Visiting the dentist
So when should your baby pay his first visit to the dentist?
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and many other dental authorities worldwide, you should take him for a dental check-up at some point during his first year.
This gives your baby's dentist the opportunity to identify potential problems at an early stage and also to establish a good prevention program. It also gets your baby accustomed to the routine of dental visits and can help ensure he is calm on future visits.
Tips to keep your baby's teeth healthy
1. Avoid giving your baby juice. Nearly 90% of infants in the US are drinking juice before their first birthday. Yet whole fruit is nutritionally superior to fruit juice and contains dietary fiber, which juice lacks. Giving water to your baby is the healthiest option when he needs additional fluids.
2. If you do give your baby fruit juice, then make sure he drinks it from a sippy cup, not a bottle. Drinking juice from a bottle causes it to "pool" around your baby's teeth and puts him at a very high risk of dental decay.
3. Do not put your baby to bed with a bottle of juice or milk. The lactose in milk can react with the bacteria in your baby's mouth, forming the acids that attack tooth enamel.
4. Do not dip your baby's dummy/pacifier into any sweet substance.
5. Do not add sugar to your baby's food. A little maple syrup or barley malt can be used instead if you really need to sweeten a particular food for your baby. NEVER use honey as a sweetener for babies less than 1 year of age - honey may contain botulism spores, which can be fatal to a young baby.
6. Ensure that baby's teeth get an extra good clean at bedtime! During the night, his natural production of saliva decreases, so its rinsing action diminishes too. This means that any harmful bacteria in the mouth are able to settle on the teeth more easily.
7. If your baby is receiving oral medication, give it to him before you brush his teeth, not afterwards. Almost all oral medications for infants contain sucrose.