Oral health for babies and toddlers

Start taking care of your baby's teeth, even before they appear!
Start taking care of your baby's teeth, even before they appear! 

To raise awareness about the importance of caring for your baby's oral health from the moment they are born, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) has launched a website to assist parents with tips on preventative oral care for babies and toddlers.

Tooth development in babies and toddlers

Primary teeth
Baby or primary teeth start to form in the jawbone before birth. A baby's first primary tooth usually erupts at six months of age although this can occur as early as birth or as late as the child's first birthday. The average child has a full set of 20 primary teeth by the age of two to three years. The first visit to the dentist should be within six months of the eruption of the first tooth or by the child's first birthday.

The appearance of primary teeth is commonly called 'teething', and many babies experience discomfort during teething.

Most babies are irritable when new teeth break through their gums. Signs and symptoms of discomfort include:

  • Frequent crying and crankiness
  • A slight fever
  • Reddened cheeks and drooling
  • Appetite loss and upset stomach
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sucking or gnawing on toys
  • Pulling the ear on the same side as the erupting tooth

It's important not to ignore symptoms of fever and diarrhoea though. If these symptoms appear, it is recommended that they are treated as unrelated symptoms to teething and medical advice should be sought to eliminate other causes.

To help relieve the discomfort of teething, the ADA suggests:

Thumb sucking
Thumb sucking is a natural reflex in babies and toddlers. Most children lose interest in thumb sucking at two to four years.


Children who continue to suck their thumb or fingers after the permanent teeth have appeared risk developing crooked teeth, particularly if the sucking is forceful or frequent. Speech defects may also arise, especially with the 's' and 'th' sounds.

It's advised to gently encourage your child to give up thumb sucking. See your dentist for advice if your child cannot stop thumb sucking by the end of the first year at school.

Healthy eating for healthy teeth
As soon as your baby develops their first tooth, they are at risk of dental decay. Decay in babies and toddlers is known as Early Childhood Caries (ECC). To help prevent ECC, follow these guidelines:

  • If your baby has teeth, don't settle them to sleep with a breastfeed or bottle of milk, sweetened flavoured milk, cordial, soft drink or fruit juice. Bacteria feed on the sugar in these drinks and form plaque acids on teeth, which eat into the tooth surface and cause decay
  • Never allow your child to take a bottle of milk or other sugary beverages to bed. When they are older, it's fine to offer a glass of water in case they get thirsty overnight
  • If your baby likes to suck on something to settle to sleep, offer a dummy or a bottle of water
  • If your baby has a breastfeed or bottle of milk before bed, gently wipe down their teeth with a moistened cloth before bed
  • Breast and bottle feeding regularly throughout the night once a child is over 12 months can contribute to ECC. Speak with your maternal or child health care adviser if your baby still needs an overnight feed
  • Avoid giving your baby or toddler frequent snacks; three meals and two snacks per day is sufficient to meet dietary needs
  • If your baby suffers from a dry mouth (lack of saliva) and is a mouth breather, they are at greater risk of ECC. Speak with your maternal, or child health care adviser or dentist if you think your baby may suffer from a dry mouth
  • Start phasing out breast and bottle feeding from 12 months and encourage your baby to learn to drink from a cup

Foods that can contribute to dental decay include those high in refined carbohydrates (sugar) such as concentrated fruit snack bars, lollies, muesli bars, sweet biscuits, some breakfast cereals and sugary drinks and juices. Sugar feeds the destructive bacteria in your baby's or toddler's mouth, producing acid that can destroy your child's teeth. These foods should be limited.

A healthy diet must be complemented by good oral hygiene - brushing and flossing teeth, together with regular dental checkups.

Fluoride is especially good for strengthening young teeth
With children drinking less fluoridated tap water, and increased consumption of sugary, processed foods and drinks, decay rates are rising in young children. Encouraging healthy eating and drinking habits in babies and toddlers is the best way to help your child have healthy teeth for life.

Bottled water usually doesn't contain enough fluoride to offer protection against tooth decay. Some water filters remove fluoride from tap water, while storage-tank water does not contain fluoride. If your child drinks the majority of their water from bottled or filtered water tanks, then talk to your dentist about your child's individual fluoride needs.

Oral hygiene for babies and toddlers
Babies and toddlers are just as much at risk of dental decay as an older child or adult. Caring for your baby's teeth needs to begin at birth. By looking after your baby's first teeth, you'll provide your child with essential oral hygiene habits as they grow and develop.

Even before your baby's teeth appear it's recommended that you gently wipe their gums with a moistened soft cloth once a day. During bath-time is a good opportunity.

Once the baby or primary teeth appear, it's recommended that you use a baby's toothbrush with a small head and soft, rounded bristles. Up to the age of 18 months, teeth should be brushed with plain water, once a day after the last feed in the evening.

There are special low-fluoride toothpastes that have been developed for young children and these can be used from around 18 months, however always read the directions on toothpaste for age suitability. Use only a smear of toothpaste and teach your child to spit out the toothpaste after brushing.

Store toothpaste out of your child's reach. Some small children love the taste of toothpaste and may eat it if given the chance.

Flossing can be done when your child is two and half years old, at a minimum of twice weekly. Flossing helps remove decay causing bacteria from between your child's teeth, keeping their gums healthy. Slide the floss between the teeth and gently work it up and down, against the surfaces of each tooth. Don't snap the floss down between the teeth as it may damage the gums. After flossing, have your child rinse with water, then brush your child's teeth, or alternatively, brush then floss. If you find flossing your child's teeth difficult, ask your dentist to instruct you. Floss holders can also be purchased to make flossing easier.

Toddler Taming
If you toddler resists brushing, you may like to try these toddler taming suggestions:

  • A battery-powered brush can add novelty to cleaning their teeth
  • Sing nursery rhymes or play a song while you help your child brush their teeth
  • Offer a reward every time your child allows you to brush for two minutes
  • Through 'show and tell' methods, encourage your child to practise teeth cleaning under your supervision.

By avoiding any negative association or resistance, you'll be able to make flossing and brushing more enjoyable for your children. Also remember that children tend to imitate their parents' behaviours, so if oral hygiene is important to you, they will be important to your child.

An important note about your oral health
It is important for parents of babies to ensure they maintain their own oral health as dental decay is transmissible, meaning that bacteria can be spread to another person.

To help minimise transferring bacteria from your mouth to your child's, have regular dental checkups, maintain good oral hygiene habits and follow a healthy diet.

To find more visit www.babyteeth.com.au