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Healthy teeth and gums are vital to children’s general health. Good oral health practices should start even before the first tooth appears in your baby’s mouth. But how do you clean those tiny gums and teeth?
Baby playing with his bell rattle

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Cleaning and caring for children’s teeth early on sets up good dental habits for life, and creates good dental patients.
 

Teeth development

Baby teeth develop while babies are still in the womb. Newborns have a full set of 20 baby teeth hidden in their gums.

Most baby teeth appear between 6 and 10 months. In some children, teeth appear as early as three months. In others, they don’t arrive until around 12 months. Different children get teeth at different times. A very small number of children are born with one or two teeth.

Diagram of baby teeth and adult teeth positions 

Baby teeth can arrive in any order, although the central bottom teeth are often first. All the baby teeth will usually arrive by the time your child is three years old.

The 32 adult teeth replace the baby teeth between the ages of 6 and 20 years. You can’t replace these teeth, so you have to look after them.

Teething

Each baby tooth appears (‘erupts’) slowly over several weeks or months. As it gets to the surface, the gum opens up to show the tooth.

Many people think that ‘teething’ babies:

  • cry a lot or seem extra cranky
  • don’t feed as well as usual
  • suck on objects such as toys, dummies and bibs
  • have more dirty nappies more often
  • pull the ear on the same side as the tooth coming through.

There’s debate about whether these signs are caused by teething. They might just be a normal part of development or a result of minor infections and illnesses. If your baby isn’t well, it’s always best to take her to the doctor, especially if she has a fever or diarrhoea, or you’re worried about any other symptoms.

Babies can sometimes rub their gums together when new teeth are starting to erupt. This isn’t usually a problem.

Things to try
If you’re concerned about your baby’s teething, you can try:

  • gently rubbing your baby’s gums with a clean finger – make sure to wash your hands first
  • giving your baby something to bite on, such as a cold (but not frozen) teething ring, toothbrush or dummy
  • cooking mushier foods, which need less chewing
  • giving your baby something firm, like a sugar-free rusk, to suck on.

If your baby still seems unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s time to see your doctor or child health nurse. Teething might not be the problem.

If your baby likes a dummy, keep him away from foodstuffs and liquids such as honey and sugar. It’s also a good idea to encourage him to let go of the dummy after about 12 months.

Cleaning baby gums and teeth

You can start cleaning and caring for your baby’s gums well before the first tooth appears. A couple of times a day, just wipe her gums gently using a clean, damp face washer or gauze.

As soon as teeth arrive, you can clean them twice a day (in the morning and before bed). Wrap a clean, damp face washer or gauze around a finger and wipe the front and back of each tooth.

If your baby doesn’t mind, you can introduce a small, soft toothbrush designed for children under two years. Use only water on the toothbrush until your baby is 18 months old (unless a dentist tells you to do something else).

Once your child is 18 months old, you can use a pea–sized smear of low-fluoride toothpaste on the toothbrush.

Toothpaste shouldn’t be used with babies under 18 months of age (unless recommended by your dentist).

The best way to clean your baby’s teeth

  1. Place your baby in a position where you can see his mouth, and he feels secure.
  2. Cup your baby’s chin in your hands, with his head resting against your body.
  3. Clean his teeth using soft, circular motions.
  4. Lift his lips to brush the front and back of the teeth and at the gum line.
Keeping the toothbrush clean

After cleaning your baby’s teeth and gums, rinse the toothbrush with tap water.

Store the toothbrush upright in an open container to allow it to air-dry.

If other family members’ toothbrushes are stored in the same place, make sure the brushes don’t touch. This reduces the risk that decay-causing germs will travel between brushes and into your baby’s mouth. And there’s no sharing when it comes to toothbrushes! One for each family member is best.

Toothbrushes should be replaced every 3-4 months, or when the bristles get worn or frayed.

Teeth cleaning alone isn’t a guarantee against tooth decay. Diet and the way you feed your baby are also important to oral health. For more information, you might like to read our article on preventing tooth decay.

Visiting the dentist

Children should have an oral health assessment by age two.

Video: Caring for your baby's teeth

Download Video  9mb
This short video shows you how to care for children’s teeth. It includes advice on encouraging children to drink tap water, brushing children’s teeth as soon as the first ones are through, and avoiding sugary drinks. Parents also talk about how important it is to avoid giving your child a bottle of milk in bed.
 
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  • Last Updated 27-01-2012
  • Last Reviewed 27-01-2012
  • Acknowledgements Raising Children Network would like to thank Martine Calache, Professor Hanny Calache and Susanne Sofronoff of Dental Health Services Victoria for their help in reviewing and writing this article.
  • Berkowitz, R.J. (2003). Causes, treatment and prevention of early childhood dental caries: A microbiologic perspective. Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, 69(5), 304-307.

    Dental Health Services Victoria (2011). Oral health promotion: A resource for children’s services. Retrieved July 20, 2011, http://www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-resources/guides-and-resources/#Teeth.

    Dental Health Services Victoria (2011). Teeth: Oral health information for maternal and child health nurses. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from http://www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-resources/guides-and-resources/#Teeth.

    National Oral Health Clearing House (2011). Oral health messages for the Australian public. Australian Dental Journal, 56(3), 331-335.