Being aware of what to look for as a parent for your child’s oral health is important, and can help anticipate what needs your child might have at different stages and how best to help them.
Birth to Early Childhood (0-3 years): For babies, getting used to the feel of a toothbrush is helpful for establishing a routine that includes brushing as they get older. Simple toothbrushes or even a wipe with a cloth are a way to remove anything after eating and get used to the texture on the gums.
You can expect teeth to start erupting around 6 months, starting with front incisors, then back molars, and then the teeth in between. The teeth will come in stages until around age 3. Teething can be uncomfortable, but sometimes a teething ring that feels cool on the gums is helpful for them to chew on to relieve some discomfort.
It is recommended to gradually increase brushing and start adding a slight layer of children’s toothpaste over time, as teeth erupt. The fluoride is good to introduce for cavity protection, and children’s toothpaste has a more gentle flavor than strong mint paste. Be mindful of not giving things like a bottle to get to sleep, with milk or sugary drinks – this can cause what is known as “baby bottle decay” or decay throughout the mouth. Always wipe or brush before sleeping to prevent early decay.
Early visits to a dentist around this age might involve staying in your lap, while the hygienist and dentist take a look with a mirror and check for any signs of cavities, and can go over questions with you. These visits also help establish a routine of going to the dentist, and help relieve some anxieties from having fun, positive visits.
American Dental Association (ADA) Baby Teeth Eruption Chart
Childhood (3-12 years): Baby teeth will generally start to erupt by around age 3. Between the ages of 6-12 years is a period of mixed dentition – baby teeth start becoming loose and replaced with adult teeth. As with baby teeth, adult teeth first erupt on the front incisors, then back molars, and then the teeth in between. Loose teeth can be uncomfortable – sometimes slowly encouraging them by moving back and forth, applying some pressure on the side, until they fall out is a good idea. It can be scary to touch a loose tooth too much – and the gums can be a little red and swollen around the loose tooth. Gentle encouragement is a good idea, and if needed, a dentist can help remove as well.
Good, daily brushing habits are important to establish. As more teeth come in, you can also start introducing flossing with floss holders that are easy to hold and use. Baby teeth have wider spaces, but as they transition into adult teeth the spacing will be closer together. Fluoride use is important to help prevent decay, as is encouraging a limit on sugary snacks and drinks, and brushing and flossing before bed so nothing sticky or sugary stays on the teeth overnight.
Dental visits are also good to confirm teeth are erupting in a healthy way, and to monitor needs for orthodontics or braces. If concerns are shown early, preventive steps can help reduce more extensive orthodontic work later. Dental hygienists can also help with toothbrushing technique and will stay on top of preventative care.
Teenage Years (12-18 years): By around age 12 years, the adult set of teeth has erupted. Spacing is likely tighter than with baby teeth, so using string floss is a good idea to reach tighter spaces. If your child does need to wear braces, oral hygiene is very important during this time. Brackets can especially trap debris and enamel can become affected around the braces and cause what is known as “white spot lesions” of weakened enamel. Adding a rinse with fluoride is helpful, as are aids such as an electric toothbrush or a water flosser.
If your child plays sports, make sure to be mindful of recommendations for a mouthguard to protect teeth. If a tooth should fall out in an accident – it is best to simply place back into the socket, without cleaning or removing any tissue, to help increase the likelihood of retaining the tooth. Seeing a dentist as soon as you are able is a good idea to secure in place and look to next steps.
Early Adulthood (18-21 years): The last teeth that may (or may not) come in are the third molars, or wisdom teeth. Wisdom teeth are notoriously unpredictable – some people never have them at all, some have a few but not all, and some have extra wisdom teeth. They can be impacted, or sideways and therefore unable to fully erupt. If there is any discomfort in the far back area behind the last molars, it may be a good idea to check on whether or not wisdom teeth are coming in. Keeping a partially erupted wisdom tooth clean is important, and if a tooth is impacted or otherwise has a poor prognosis, it may be good to consider having them removed before they affect other more important teeth in front.
If your child had braces that were removed, it is recommended to continue use of retainers as teeth continue to shift and move and can revert back to prior to the treatment.
And as always, regular oral hygiene routines and preventive visits are encouraged to maintain. College years are a very common time to skip dental visits, but is recommended to stay on track.