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Childhood Dental Health Guide

Taking care of your child’s teeth is important to their overall health, but many of us have questions about the basics. When should you visit the dentist for the first time? When should you teach kids to brush on their own?

Here are the big milestones for childhood dental health.

Baby teeth

Most babies develop teeth between 6 and 12 months of age, though it’s perfectly normal for some babies not to have any teeth by their first birthday. Typically, the first to come in are the lower front teeth. Most kids have all 20 of their baby teeth by age 3, and those will start falling out around age 6 or 7.

Baby teeth serve two important purposes:

  1. They help children learn to speak and chew naturally
  2. They hold the place for permanent teeth until they are ready to come in

Here’s how to care for them:

  • Clean your baby’s teeth with plain water and a small, soft-bristled toothbrush or washcloth.
  • Don’t let infants fall asleep with a bottle in their mouth. The liquid can pool around the teeth and cause cavities.
  • Serve juice and other high-sugar beverages in a cup, never from a bottle.

When to start brushing

Once your child has a tooth or teeth, brush them twice a day with a pea-sized drop of fluoride toothpaste. Let your child help brush his or her own teeth around age 2 or 3, but monitor them until age 7. Don’t let children swallow excess toothpaste.

When to see the dentist

Take your child to the dentist when their first tooth appears, or by their first birthday. After that, a check-up every 6 months is recommended, however, your dentist can tell you how often your child should visit. If your child has a toothache, rinse the irritated area with warm salt water and place a cold compress on the face. Give the child acetaminophen if they’re in pain, and see a dentist as soon as possible.

Thumb-sucking and pacifiers

Sucking habits are typically only a problem if they go on for an extended period of time. Most children will stop on their own, but if they’re still doing it at age 3, have a discussion with your dentist.

Permanent teeth

  • Around age 6 or 7, baby teeth will begin falling out, and that process can continue until age 12.
  • By age 13, most of your child’s 28 permanent teeth should be in place.
  • From ages 17 to 21, up to 4 wisdom teeth also typically emerge.


Fluoride is a mineral that helps prevent tooth decay. It hardens enamel and strengthens teeth, making it harder for cavities to form. Fluoride is most commonly found in drinking water and toothpaste, and your child should be exposed to it starting at 6 months of age.

Fluoride in Tennessee

Most community water supplies include fluoride. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Dental Association (ADA), the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health support adding fluoride to drinking water. However, misinformation about fluoride is widespread, and in Tennessee, counties determine whether fluoride should be added to drinking water. Fluoride is no longer added to water in more than 60 Tennessee counties. Click here to learn more about yours.

A few brands of bottled water contain added fluoride. Check the label to see if it’s included. If you’re concerned about fluoridation, ask your child’s dentist about fluoride treatments.

Childhood dental emergencies

Kids who play sports or do other activities such as skating and bicycling should wear a mouth guard to protect their teeth. Your dentist can custom-make a mouth guard, or you can purchase a basic guard at a sporting goods store.

If your child does experience a dental emergency:

  • For a knocked-out, permanent tooth: Pick up the tooth by the top or the crown — not the roots — and put it in a glass of cool milk. Don’t clean the tooth or touch the roots. If you can get to the dentist within 30 minutes, the tooth may be saved.
  • For a broken tooth: Rinse the mouth with warm water to clean the area and soothe the tooth. Place an ice pack on the cheek nearest the injury to keep swelling down. See the dentist as soon as possible.

6 proactive tips for childhood dental health

1. Limit sugary snacks, drinks and sticky candy to special occasions

These foods create bacteria and high levels of acid in the mouth, which eats away at tooth enamel and leads to cavities. Encourage your kids to stay away from sticky candy and chew sugar-free gum.

2. Limit high-acid foods

Pickles, lemons, berries and even some dairy and grains are acidic foods, which can eat away at enamel.

3. Water down sports drinks and soda

Sports drinks and regular sodas have a lot of sugar. Limit the number that your children drink, and add water to those they do.

4. Give kids straws for sugary beverages

This limits the amount of contact the beverage has with your child’s teeth. Just be sure the straw isn’t resting against their teeth.

5. Have kids rinse their mouth with water or brush their teeth after eating or drinking sugary or acidic things

This will help ensure the sugars don’t stay in the mouth.

6. Talk to your dentist about sealants

The chewing surfaces on the back of your child’s teeth are where cavities form most often. A clear or tooth-colored plastic can help protect the grooves in the teeth where bacteria may form.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As senior copywriter at bohan, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist.

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