Brushing up on your child’s dental milestones

Brushing up on your child’s dental milestones
By: UnitedHealthcare Last Updated: March 16, 2020

My heart sank a little bit as my 8-year-old son’s dentist pointed to a few hidden areas his toothbrush just wasn’t quite reaching. Then came the news we were hoping to avoid: two cavities.

I thought we followed all the rules with regular checkups and brushing twice a day. My kids were even getting the hang of flossing by themselves.

Still, I’ve realized proper dental health isn’t as easy as handing your kid a toothbrush. I needed to take a more active role in overseeing my children’s healthy brushing habits. In fact, an American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry “State of Little Teeth” report shows many parents may face the same struggles whether experiencing barriers, like a lack of access to pediatric dental care or just not understanding the steps needed to help set kids up for success.   

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says nearly half of children aged 6-11 in the U.S. are affected by tooth decay, which is preventable. Other concerning statistics include: 

  • 1 in 10 2-year-olds already have one or more cavities.
  • By age 5, nearly 50% of children have one or more cavities
  • Vulnerable children living in poverty are twice as likely to experience tooth decay, which may impact eating, sleeping, self-esteem and school performance, AAPD reported in its annual research paper.

During February’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, these tips may reduce the risk of cavities and help make sure your child’s dental health is something to smile about. 

Babies (Birth to 1 year)

You can start good oral hygiene even at birth and keep the tiniest teeth healthy. Children with cavities in their baby teeth are more likely to get cavities in their permanent teeth. 

  • Starting at birth, clean your baby’s gums with water and a soft cloth or child-sized tooth brush.
  • Never put a baby to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, fruit juice or sweetened liquid. Sugar collects around their teeth while they are sleeping, resulting in decay. 
  • You can brush as soon as that first tooth appears. The Cleveland Clinic reports that developing the habit early may help your child have less resistance when it comes to brushing twice a day.
  • Schedule the first dental visit when the child’s first tooth comes in, usually between 6 months old to a year. 

Toddlers (1-3 years)

Until your little one has the skills to brush their teeth on their own, parents need to lead the charge.

  • Around age 2, parents can start brushing a baby’s teeth for two minutes, twice a day. A soft-bristled toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste is recommended.
  • The American Dental Association (ADA) also recommends a dab of toothpaste no larger than a grain of rice until age 3, making sure to teach the toddler to spit out the toothpaste, which may expose them to too much fluoride. 
  • After age 3, children can use a pea-size dab of toothpaste.
  • If your toddler isn’t cooperative, giving them something to play with can be a good distraction.

Children (4 years and up)

Most children have a full set of 20 baby teeth by the time they are 3 years old, according to the ADA.

  • Take your child to the dentist twice a year and ask about fluoride supplements, which help make the tooth enamel strong and fight decay. 
  • Begin flossing when back teeth begin to come in, usually around ages 3-4. Parents should actively floss at this age. Toothbrush bristles cannot reach between teeth.
  • Diet plays a key role in dental health. Limit sugary snacks and drinks between meals. 
  • Consider sealants on your child’s back teeth to protect them from decay when molars first come in. They are sometimes covered as a preventive service by dental plans, so check with your provider.

For children and adults, be sure to take advantage of your health plan’s preventive dental benefit (if available) and visit your dentist regularly. By taking these steps, you can start your children down the road of good oral health.