Babies and toddlers (0–2 years)
Baby teeth (sometimes called deciduous, primary or milk teeth) are important for children to:
- eat well
- speak well
- have a healthy smile
Strong teeth in childhood set children up for good oral health later in life. Baby teeth hold the space for adult teeth – the early loss of baby teeth can cause crowding of the adult teeth.
Tooth decay (holes) can start as soon as teeth appear. Tooth decay is caused by plaque (a sticky film of germs and left-over food) that coats the teeth. If not brushed away, plaque uses the sugars in foods and drinks to make acid. Over time, this acid rots the tooth away, causing a hole.
How to prevent tooth decay in babies and toddlers
Brush teeth as soon as they appear
- Clean teeth as soon as they appear in the mouth. This is usually around six months of age but this varies between children.
- Use a small, soft toothbrush to gently clean teeth morning and night.
- You can also use a damp wash cloth or gauze wrapped around your finger if your baby won’t accept a toothbrush.
- For children under 18 months, don’t use toothpaste unless advised by a dental practitioner – wet the toothbrush with water.
Start using low-fluoride toothpaste from 18 months of age
- At 18 months, clean your child’s teeth with a small (pea-sized) amount of low-fluoride toothpaste on a small, soft toothbrush. Low-fluoride toothpaste is often labelled as children’s toothpaste and has half the fluoride concentration of regular toothpaste.
- Avoid rinsing your babies mouth or giving foods or drinks (including water) after brushing. This will wash away protective fluoride from the teeth.
- If you live in an area without water fluoridation, speak to your dental practitioner about when to start using a fluoride toothpaste.
- If using a bottle, only put breastmilk, formula or water in your baby’s bottle. Sugary drinks, like soft drink, cordial, flavoured milk and juice increase the risk of tooth decay.
- Don’t let your baby go to bed with a bottle. Avoid settling babies to sleep with a bottle, even if filled with milk or formula. The milk will pool around the teeth and cause decay.
- Try to introduce a cup from 6 months and stop using a bottle from 12 months. Plain, cool water is the best drink for toddlers.
- Never put honey or other sweet food on a dummy as this can cause tooth decay.
- Choose healthy foods low in sugar for older babies and toddlers. Tooth friendly foods do not contain added sugar or honey. Visit the Growing Good Habits website for more information on introducing first foods.
Check your child’s teeth for signs of tooth decay
- Decay can start in baby teeth soon after they appear and can progress quickly.
- Get into the habit of checking your child’s teeth regularly for signs of decay.
- Decay looks like brown or white spots on the teeth that do not rub off. Also check the gums for signs of swelling or infection (pus or a “pimple” in the mouth).
- Make a dental appointment as soon as possible if you think your child has tooth decay or another problem with their mouth.
Take your child for their first dental check-up by their second birthday
- This will pick up any problems early and will help make your child comfortable with having their teeth checked.
- Your child may be eligible to have a free dental check-up at a public oral health clinic.
- If your child is not eligible for free public oral health care then you should seek care from a private dentist.
Ensure the whole family has good oral health
- Babies are born without the bacteria (germs) in their mouth that can cause decay.
- Bacteria can be passed to newborn babies if bottles or dummies are "cleaned" by a parent or caregiver before passing to a baby. Sharing spoons is also a common way for decay-causing bacteria to be passed to babies.
- If your baby uses a dummy, have spares on hand and sterilise or clean them in hot soapy water.
- Look after the oral health of the family to avoid spreading decay-causing bacteria to babies. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and visit the dentist regularly.
- Make sure each child has their own toothbrush and change them every 3-4 months.
Brushing toddlers' teeth
It can sometimes be tricky to clean children’s teeth, especially as they move into the ‘toddler’ phase.
- Aim to clean your child’s teeth at a time when they are relaxed and not too tired. Position them so you can clearly see their teeth and they feel secure.
- Sit toddlers on your lap to brush their teeth. You can also try sitting on the lounge with your toddler’s head lying back on your lap to make it easier to see their teeth.
- Include toothbrushing as part of the bath or bedtime routine.
- Give lots of positive reinforcement for good toothbrushing behaviour.
- Talk about toothbrushing with your child and practice brushing the “teeth” of one of their toys.