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Putting a Smile on Your Child’s Face

Nicky Kilpatrick and Pam Leong

Did you know about half of all Australian children start school with holes in their teeth?

Many of these children will have already suffered from toothache and some will have been hospitalised to manage the infection. About one in five children get toothache or a dental infection severe enough to cause problems eating, sleeping and concentrating. It is one of the most common diseases in children. Healthy teeth are needed for chewing, speaking and smiling. By looking after your child’s teeth when they are very young, you can help make sure that they don’t get decay or have other dental problems as they get older.

Your child’s first tooth may appear anytime from about three months of age but by three years old most children have all their baby teeth. While the front baby teeth are replaced by adult ones around six years of age, your child’s baby molars (the grinding teeth at the back of the mouth) do not generally fall out until 11 or 12 years of age. Making sure these teeth stay healthy is really important, because they help to guide the adult teeth in to the right place.

Your child’s first dental visit should be as soon as their first teeth come through.

Your dentist should have a good look at your baby’s mouth and talk to you about the risk of your child getting decay (holes in their teeth). The risk of getting decay does differ in different people. It can depend a bit on your family history of decay but it mostly depends on yours and your baby’s dietary habits and whether or not you or your child are exposed to the right amount of fluoride (a good thing).

Sometimes teeth do not form properly and come through somewhat soft or ‘hypomineralised’. These ‘hypomineralised’ teeth are more likely to get decay so it's important that a dentist look at your baby’s teeth as soon as they come through. Poorly formed teeth are more common in children with other medical issues, such as congenital heart disease, or cleft lip and palate.

Proper care of the teeth helps avoid painful and expensive tooth decay. Here are some ways to protect the teeth from cavities.

Tooth brushing

Tooth brushing removes plaque, which is the white, bug-filled coating that causes decay. As soon as your baby starts to grow their teeth you can wipe the teeth and gums with a cloth, or brush with a small toothbrush at least once a day; bedtime is best.

For an older child, brush twice a day. Children generally need help cleaning their teeth and gums up to age six.


Fluoride protects teeth from decay by making tooth enamel (the outer coating) harder and stopping the bugs in the mouth from turning sugary foods into cavity-causing acids. As soon as your baby has teeth in their mouth, they can get decay. You can start using toothpaste on your baby's teeth as soon as they come through. Use a fluoride toothpaste. There are plenty of brands that make ‘baby’, junior’ or 'first' toothpastes which all have a low concentration of fluoride. Just use a tiny smear of paste rubbed in to the bristles of the toothbrush.

Good nutrition

Good nutrition helps reduce painful tooth decay. Focus on healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruit, and limit sugary snacks and drinks like cordial, fizzy drinks and fruit juice. Also, stay away from sticky, sweet foods, such as raisins, especially between meals. In addition, avoid putting your baby to bed with a bottle filled with milk, formula, juices, or other sweet drinks that all can lead to tooth decay. We now know that frequency (i.e. how many times a day) your child has a sugary food or drink is also really important. Try to give your child savoury rather than sweet snacks between meals such as cheese, carrots, or plain pop-corn.

If you have any questions about your child’s teeth you can go and see a dental professional such as a paediatric dentist. Paediatric dentists are qualified dentists who have completed accredited specialist post-graduate training and are fully equipped to provide you with all the advice that you need about your child.

If you can help protect your baby from dental decay, they stand a better chance of growing up pain free with a healthy, happy smile. 

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