Children’s Dental Health: Your Complete Guide

A lifetime of great oral health starts with a great family dentist and good habits at home. Building positive dental experiences in early childhood can set your child up for strong, healthy teeth and gums throughout their life. In this post, you’ll find a deep dive into the three main pillars of dental health for kids: preventing cavities for children; maintaining healthy gums for kids; and preparing your child for a successful dental visit.

There is so much to know about children’s dental health, so don’t forget to check back for future posts about brushing techniques, pacifiers and thumb sucking, and more!

All About Cavities for Kids

One of the questions parents ask us almost every day is how to prevent cavities in kids’ teeth. And it’s a question worth asking! Cavities are the number one most common chronic disease of childhood according to the CDC.

Cavities in baby teeth may seem like they’re not a big deal. (After all, they’re just going to lose those teeth, anyway!) But cavities in children’s teeth can cause huge problems. In fact, children with cavities are more likely to miss school than their classmates with healthy teeth. Even if they don’t miss class, tooth pain can be a serious distraction, leading to poor grades and missed sleep. It’s important to know how kids get cavities, how to identify cavities in baby teeth, and what you can do to prevent cavities for your child.

How Do Kids Get Cavities?

Just like adult teeth, cavities in kids’ teeth start with acid. That acid usually comes from plaque buildup or from food debris breaking down in the mouth. Keep in mind that food debris includes liquids like breastmilk and formula!

Baby Bottle Tooth Decay and Early Childhood Cavities

Baby bottle tooth decay, also known as baby bottle rot or rampant caries, most commonly shows up in between the front teeth in young children. However, it’s important to know that these cavities can show up in the back teeth, too!

One of the most common causes for baby bottle tooth decay is prolonged exposure to sugars on the teeth. In the past, it was very common to put babies to bed with a bottle of milk or formula in the hopes that they would settle themselves and sleep better overnight. However, this leaves residue to break down on the teeth, bathing them in acid for hours.

Even for children who don’t drink from a bottle, starchy snacking before bed can do similar damage, leaving food stuck between the teeth or in the grooves of the molars. Whenever possible, try to make a rule of only offering water once the teeth are brushed in the evening. Or, if your kiddo just won’t sleep without that one last snack, brush again after the snack is done or at the very least rinse with water.

Breastfed babies commonly need to nurse several times overnight throughout their first year of life. Formula breaks down more slowly in the gut, frequently allowing formula-fed babies to sleep for longer stretches earlier in their development.

Although some studies indicate that breastfeeding can have some protective effect for the teeth up to 12 months of age, breastfeeding past two years old, especially in a side-lying position at night, may increase the risk for cavities. If your baby needs to feed overnight, try to make sure there is no milk or formula left in their mouth by feeding with baby on their back (not lying side by side) to prevent milk pooling in the cheek as they fall back asleep. You can also offer a pacifier to encourage swallowing with an empty mouth. (And check back in for a future post with information about best practices for pacifiers!)

Gastric Reflux Can Cause Tooth Decay in Kids

In some cases, acid reflux can cause tooth problems for children, including tooth decay. Gastric reflux is common in babies and children under the age of 2 and continues past the age of 10 in an estimated 10% of kids. Just like acids from plaque bacteria and food debris, acid reflux can lead to tooth decay by leaching minerals out of the teeth. If your child has struggled with reflux, it’s important to include regular dental visits and excellent home care habits in their routine to prevent long term tooth damage from reflux.

Remember That Cavity-Causing Bacteria Are Contagious!

When it comes to taking care of our kids, most of us don’t mind sharing. Unfortunately, that frequently includes our saliva. It’s very common for parents to share food, drinks, and utensils with young children, exposing them to our saliva. Some parents will even clean pacifiers or other toys or utensils for their child by licking them. This may seem harmless (after all, we’re family!), but licking pacifiers and sharing saliva with children allows our own oral bacteria to set up shop in their mouth, including the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

What Do Cavities Look Like in Children

Knowing how to tell if your child has a cavity can be tricky. That’s why it’s so important to make regular dental visits part of your child’s healthcare routine from an early age. However, keeping a close eye on your child’s teeth can help you get early interventions should a problem arise.

First and foremost, get in the habit of taking a close look at all your child’s teeth on a regular basis so you know what normal looks like for them. This can be very tricky with toddlers, but with practice it gets easier!

Sit on the floor and have your child lay their head in your lap, so you’re looking at their mouth upside down. Giving your child a mirror or having another adult or older sibling hold a mirror for them so they can see what you see can be great motivation for them to cooperate!

Using a flashlight if needed, have your child open wide and look at each tooth, all the way into the very back, top and bottom. Pull their cheeks and lips aside to look at the gumline of each tooth, too.

Cavities start out as areas of decalcification, which appear as a bright white or chalky area. Over time, that decalcified area may turn brown and eventually black. Cavities may appear between teeth, along the gumline, or in the chewing surfaces of back teeth. Cavities between your child’s teeth might look like shadows or dark grey areas, especially cavities between the front teeth in small children.

If you suspect your child might have a cavity, you should always feel comfortable to schedule a consultation to let your dentist take a look!

How to Prevent Cavities in Kids’ Teeth

Kids tend to build up a lot of plaque and have significant food debris that gets left behind overnight. This is due to several factors, but home care is a major challenge for most children. Especially for younger kids, effective brushing can be a struggle.

We’ll go over tips for brushing and flossing a child’s teeth in detail in a future post, but when it comes to preventing cavities for children, it all comes down to making sure you minimize acid and give their teeth plenty of minerals. That means removing plaque and food thoroughly at least twice every day and supplementing with fluoride. Fluoride is the best possible method for how to prevent cavities naturally.

Fluoride Is the Best Way to Prevent Cavities in Kids

Despite some unfortunate rumors, fluoride is healthy for kids! Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral and an essential nutrient. Fluoride is found naturally in ground water in many areas and is added to tap water in many counties in Florida as a way to prevent tooth decay in children and adults.

Fluoride strengthens teeth by giving a mineral supplement to the enamel, rebuilding areas where mineral has been lost due to acid exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste starting from the appearance of the first tooth, graduating to a pea-sized drop of toothpaste once your child is old enough to spit out the bubbles.

If you’re not comfortable using fluoride toothpaste until your child is old enough to spit out the excess, you can opt for a fluoride-free training paste in the meantime. Try to find one that contains xylitol, a natural sugar that can prevent cavities by neutralizing acid in the mouth.

For older children, an anticavity mouthwash can be another great way to boost mineral supplements for the teeth and fight cavities.

We also recommend a professional fluoride treatment after each dental cleaning. Fluoride varnish is a sticky coating painted onto the teeth. Fluoride varnish is amazingly effective at strengthening the teeth and helping prevent tooth decay. In fact, it works so well that most dental insurances have coverage for fluoride treatments for kids!

Gum Health for Kids

Kids can get gingivitis just like adults. Inflammation in the gums usually starts with bacteria. As we already discussed, kids tend to build up significant plaque, which can cause cavities as well as gingivitis. However, kids are at even more disadvantage with other triggers for inflamed gums!

Orthodontic Care Can Irritate Gums

Orthodontic care in childhood allows us to improve healthy development of the bones in the palate (roof of the mouth) and jaw while they are still growing. Good orthodontic guidance for these structures can prevent many problems later in life, even helping to improve airways and preventing unnecessary wear on permanent teeth as they erupt.

Unfortunately, orthodontic appliances tend to create serious plaque traps at a time when kids are least motivated to keep their teeth clean. We also tend to put braces on children as they approach puberty. The combination of plaque with rapidly changing hormones can lead to severe gingivitis with braces.

That’s why excellent home care is vital during orthodontic treatment for kids. While it’s possible to keep braces clean with an old fashioned toothbrush and floss threaders, an electric toothbrush and WaterPik should be non-negotiables for your child during orthodontic treatment. With regular use, you can prevent gingivitis, cavities, and white spots on the teeth from braces.

Loose Teeth Can Make Gums Inflamed

Those first few loose teeth are so exciting for children, and even for parents, too! Losing a tooth and that first visit from the tooth fairy is a rite of passage many kids really look forward to. However, loose teeth can seriously irritate the gums.

As teeth become loose, they can create a sharp, rough edge that rubs on the gum tissue, causing it to become inflamed. Loose teeth can also trap plaque and food debris, further irritating the gums.

Unfortunately, red, swollen, irritated, bleeding, and even painful gums are par for the course for loose teeth. You can reassure your child that irritated gums are a normal part of losing teeth and will usually go away on their own once the tooth comes out. Some children are reluctant to “help” their loose teeth fall out, leading to more severe swelling and discomfort.

Swishing with warm salt water can help soothe irritated gums, and a WaterPik can be very helpful in sweeping out debris and bacteria from underneath loose teeth. If necessary, over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen can help. You can also apply ice to the outside of the cheek, although it’s best to avoid letting your child suck on ice as it can burn the delicate tissues of the cheeks and gums and can be a choking hazard.

Taking Your Child to the Dentist

Your child’s first dental visit is another huge milestone. While many pediatric dentists recommend a first dental visit as soon as baby’s first tooth comes in, some children benefit from delaying their first visit until they’re a bit older and ready to handle a new environment. As a family dental practice in Orlando, FL, here at Lake Baldwin Dental, we usually recommend children start seeing the dentist around age 3. However, we can see babies of any age if you have concerns!

What age to take your child for their first dental visit largely depends on their temperament. If your child tends to be confident and comfortable in new places and copes well with check-ups with their doctor, they may be ready to see the dentist very early. Timid and anxious children may do better waiting until they are a little older for their first dental visit.

Finding the best family dentist in Orlando, FL can set your kids up for a lifetime of better health. A good family dentist can help your kids feel comfortable at the dental office and build positive memories from the beginning. They’ll be less likely to avoid dental care due to anxiety or dental fear as an adult, and more likely to keep up with their oral healthcare throughout their life. All it takes is a little preparation and a friendly family dentist near you!

Preparing Your Child for a Dental Visit

It’s not unusual for children to feel nervous about visiting the dentist. No matter when you feel your child is ready for their first dental visit, a little prep work can ensure a great experience. Preparing your child for their first dental visit can help build a sense of trust in advance and help children feel less intimidated in the dental office.

Beyond actively preparing your child for their first dental visit, it’s worth noting that most dental fears actually start from overhearing caregivers talking negatively about their own dental experiences. You know how kids can be: they’re usually listening even if you don’t think they can hear you. If you need to vent about an unpleasant experience, try to save that conversation for when your kiddos are not around. A little positive talk (even if you don’t mean it) about how great your teeth feel after you see the dentist can go a long way toward helping your child build positive associations with the dental office environment.

Practicing for the Dentist

They say practice makes perfect, and sometimes practicing for a dental visit can do a ton of good. You can help your child feel ready for their dental visit by sitting on the floor or couch and having your child lay with their head in your lap so you’re looking at their mouth upside down, mimicking how a dentist will look at their teeth.

Break out that flashlight again or have a helper hold it overhead so your child can get used to having that bright light shining down. You can offer sunglasses if their eyes are sensitive, and let them know that your family dentist in Baldwin Park, FL has sunglasses they’ll be able to wear, too!

Practice opening wide and showing all the teeth, and if you’re brave you can practice touching their teeth and tongue as well. Bonus points if you can snag some exam gloves (usually available at any drugstore) so they can get used to the texture.

It can be super helpful to prepare kids for their first dental visit by switching places, too! Letting your child play dentist and examine your teeth gives them an idea of what their dentist sees. This removes a lot of the mystery and makes the whole process less intimidating for many kids.

Talking to Older Children About the Dentist

Some children do best getting all the information ahead of time about what’s going to happen. A candid discussion in advance can give them time to process and ask questions as they come up. Some kids would rather not know. You know your child best, and what approach will help them cope!

If you decide to talk about an upcoming procedure like a dental filling for your child, be sure to keep your language neutral. Avoid building up the idea that dental care is a consequence of bad behavior.

It’s so tempting to tell your child they got a cavity because they didn’t brush their teeth in the hopes that they’ll be motivated to do better moving forward. In reality, that type of message ends up making the child feel like dental care is a punishment. They’ll walk into their dental appointment already feeling crummy about it, which can lead to feeling nervous or upset. In turn, this can increase their perception of pain and make the visit a negative experience, just like they expected!

If Your Child Is Overwhelmed…

For some kids, the dental office is an overwhelming place to be. Especially for young children with sensory difficulties, all the sounds, flavors, and smells can be too much. Lake Baldwin Dental is a family dental practice, and we absolutely love our youngest patients. They’re the highlight of our day. We do everything we can to make your child’s first dental visit (and every visit) a great experience.

However, we also know when it’s time to call in reinforcements. If your child is really struggling to feel comfortable, we will gladly connect you with a pediatric dentist in Central Florida who is equipped to help children who are anxious at the dentist. A pediatric dentist is a specialist with an office entirely designed for children, and we have relationships with several pediatric specialists in the Orlando area who are here to help if that’s what your kid needs!

Be sure to keep an eye on this page in upcoming weeks! We’ll have much more information coming up in future posts about how to take care of your child’s teeth for a lifetime of great dental health. Keep smiling, Orlando!

children's dental health guide
Great dental visits make for a lifetime of healthy smiles!