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Toddler points at her teeth

How to look after your toddler’s teeth

It’s really important for kids to get into good dental habits from an early age. Every child cuts their teeth at a different rate, but as a general rule, at about the age of one, you’ll see two rows of milk teeth ­­– four little incisors on the top jaw and four on the bottom. Dentists regularly see toddlers with tooth decay and, according to the British Dental Foundation, it affects a third of all children starting school. Tooth decay can be very painful for children, and decay in milk teeth damages the adult teeth developing inside the gums. There are two ways to maintain good dental hygiene and strong teeth – through regular brushing and sensible eating habits.

Regular brushing

  • This means cleaning your child’s teeth twice a day, once just before bed.
  • Don’t brush teeth straight after a meal as it weakens the enamel – wait for at least 30 minutes after eating to avoid damage.
  • Let your child have a go at brushing but you will need to clean too (call it ‘checking’ if it helps) until your child is eight years old.
  • Clean each tooth front and back using very small circles.
  • Don’t forget to gently brush the gums too.
  • Make sure you use fluoride toothpaste (recommended by the Department of Health).
  • Under the age of three your toddler can use a toothpaste specially formulated for toddlers with lower fluoride level of at least 1,000ppm (whereas normal family toothpaste contains 1,350-1,500 parts per million). They only need a pea-sized smear of toothpaste on their teeth as they have fewer teeth than older children and tend to swallow their toothpaste.
  • Use a toothbrush targeted for your child’s age.
  • Register with an NHS dentist and book a check-up every six months.
  • Change your toddler’s toothbrush when the bristles start to splay.

Eating habits for strong teeth

  • Limit sweet food – like sugary puds – to after the main meal to minimise decay.
  • Don’t let them eat or drink sugary drinks in the half hour before bedtime. This is because production of saliva – with its neutral pH – is reduced when we sleep, limiting its ability to neutralise plaque acid.
  • Choose water or milk for your toddler’s everyday drinks. Fruit juice can cause tooth decay, and fizzy drinks contain very high levels of sugar and are full of empty calories that provide no other nutrition.
  • Don’t add juice to your baby’s bottle – the teat keeps the sugary drinks in contact with the teeth for longer than if your child was drinking out of a cup or with a straw.
  • Graduate your toddler onto a beaker or open cup if they haven’t learnt to use one already.
  • Opt for low sugar snacks in between meals, like fruit and cheese. Watch out for dried fruit, like raisins – they contain concentrated and high levels of fruit sugar, and can get stuck in toddler’s molars.

For reluctant brushers

If your toddler isn’t keen on cleaning her teeth, try letting her do the first or last part, while you take over the middle section for about two minutes. Be really gentle – it can be uncomfortable having someone else clean your teeth and you don’t want to put her off the whole thing. Inject some fun into brushing with a novelty toothbrush, for example one that lights up. Other ideas: an egg timer to time the brushing session and turning on the radio to brush for the duration of a song.

Fluoride and tooth decay

This naturally occurring mineral is proven to protect teeth from tooth decay. In the UK, just over 10% of the population have fluoride added to their water supply. (Your local water supplier can tell you if fluoride is being added to your water and how much.) Overdoses of fluoride can cause a condition called fluorosis, which is known to cause tooth discolouration and can be poisonous. But this is rare in the UK through simple tooth brushing alone and because levels of fluoride in water are carefully monitored. According to the NHS, the general view is that ‘water containing the correct amount of fluoride and fluoride toothpaste have a significant benefit in reducing tooth decay’. The Department of Health recommends using fluoride toothpaste but if you would prefer a fluoride-free toothpaste for your little one, make sure you cut sugar out of her diet and choose non-processed foods that are less likely to release sugars into the mouth. So for example, whole fresh fruit would be a better option than a smoothie. Also take extra care when supervising your child’s brushing to make sure they get all the nooks and crannies. Do discuss any concerns about your toddler’s dental health with your dentist.