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Healthy Mouth for Kids | NIH News in Health

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February 2023

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Start Early to Protect Tooth Health

Oral health is important at every age. A healthy mouth helps you eat and speak, and healthy teeth can give you a winning smile. If you’re caring for young children, you can help them get an early start at protecting their teeth, gums, and mouth.

Newborn babies have a cute toothless smile. Even though you can’t see the baby’s teeth, they’re hiding just beneath the gums.

“You can start cleaning your baby’s mouth with a clean, soft cloth even before the first teeth come in,” says Dr. Tim Iafolla, a dental health expert at NIH. “That way your baby gets used to having his or her mouth cared for.”

Baby teeth may start to appear at about 6 months of age. As early as 6 years old, these teeth may begin falling out. Though baby teeth are temporary, they are important.

“Baby teeth are used for chewing food, of course, but they also guide growth of the jaw bones, and they make room for the permanent teeth when they come in,” Iafolla explains.

Once teeth start to emerge, tooth decay can become a problem. “Tooth decay can cause early loss of teeth, which can affect speech, nutrition, and appearance,” Iafolla says.

Pain from tooth decay might cause kids to miss school. If left unchecked, tooth decay can lead to a serious infection, or abscess, that may spread to other parts of the body.

Tooth decay is caused by sugar-loving bacteria that grow in the mouth. The bacteria use sugar to make acids. Over time, these acids can wear away your teeth’s hard enamel coating and create a hole, or cavity. Eating or drinking sugary things, or snacking often throughout the day, feeds the bacteria and creates more acid, which can lead to cavities.

The good news is that tooth decay can be prevented. Start by encouraging kids to eat healthy foods and brush their teeth twice a day. Consider flossing daily as well.

Regular visits to the dentist also help. Baby teeth can be painted with a thin coating that can prevent or reduce cavities, called a fluoride varnish. Fluoride varnish should be reapplied twice a year.

Once permanent teeth come in, dentists can paint the back teeth with protective coatings called dental sealants. Both dental sealants and fluoride varnish are preventive treatments that are usually covered by insurance.

“Sealants harden to form a protective shield against germs and food,” Iafolla says. “They last for years and can prevent 80% of cavities in the back teeth.”

“Helping your children develop healthy dental and nutritional habits early in childhood can set them up for a lifetime of good dental health,” Iafolla says.

See the Wise Choices box for a timeline of tips.


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