The Basics: Overview

It’s important to keep your child’s first teeth — or baby teeth — healthy. Baby teeth hold space for adult teeth. Taking care of your child’s teeth will protect them from tooth decay (cavities).

Tooth decay can:

  • Cause your child pain
  • Make it hard for your child to chew
  • Lead to your child having a harder time in school
  • Create problems with your child’s adult teeth

Take simple steps to prevent tooth decay.

Most babies will get their first tooth around age 6 months. Start these healthy habits now so your child’s smile will stay healthy!

  • Wipe your baby’s gums with a clean cloth 2 times a day before they get any teeth
  • Start cleaning your baby’s teeth 2 times a day as soon as they come in
  • Teach your child to brush 2 times a day
  • Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride
  • Give your child healthy, low-sugar foods and drinks
  • Take your child to the dentist for regular checkups

Learn more about keeping your child’s mouth healthy.

The Basics: Tooth Decay

What is tooth decay?

Tooth decay happens because bacteria (germs) in our mouths turn sugar from the food we eat into acid. When these bacteria use the sugar, they make acid. Over time, the acid can cause cavities (holes) in teeth.

Is my child at risk for tooth decay?

Tooth decay is one of the most common childhood diseases. More than 4 in 10 kids have had decay in their baby teeth.

Eating and drinking lots of sugary foods and drinks puts your child at higher risk for tooth decay. But healthy habits, like brushing and going to the dentist, can prevent tooth decay.

Take Action: Brushing Tips

Take these steps to help you take good care of your child’s teeth.

Start with the first tooth.

As soon as your baby’s teeth start coming in, clean them regularly with plain water and a soft children’s toothbrush. Clean your baby’s teeth 2 times a day — especially right before bedtime.

If your child is younger than 2 years, ask their doctor or dentist when it’s time to start using fluoride toothpaste.

Teach your child to brush 2 times a day with fluoride toothpaste.

Starting at age 2 or 3 years, use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to brush your child’s teeth. Make sure your child spits out the toothpaste after brushing — if young children swallow too much fluoride toothpaste, their adult teeth may have white spots.

Around age 7 or 8 years, kids can start to brush their own teeth. Watch your kids to make sure they:

  • Brush all of their teeth
  • Brush for about 2 minutes each time
  • Spit out the toothpaste instead of swallowing it 
Make brushing teeth fun.

Getting kids to brush their teeth can be hard. Here are some ways you can help make it fun for them:

  • Let your child choose a toothbrush in a favorite color or with a character from a TV show or movie — just make sure it’s the right size for your child’s mouth
  • Find books or shows with stories about brushing — then you can use the characters as an example when it’s time for your child to brush their own teeth
  • Sing or play a song to help your child brush for 2 minutes

Take Action: Use Fluoride

Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride.

Fluoride is a mineral that helps protect teeth from decay.

Use fluoride toothpaste.

When you shop for toothpaste, read the label to be sure it has fluoride.

Ask your child’s doctor about fluoride varnish.

After your child’s first tooth comes in, ask the doctor to give them fluoride varnish (a thin coating of fluoride put on the teeth). Fluoride varnish helps prevent tooth decay.

Find out if there’s fluoride in your water.

Fluoride is added to the drinking water in many towns and cities. Check to see if the tap water in your area has fluoride in it, or call your local water company and ask. If your water doesn’t have fluoride added, ask your doctor or dentist if your child needs to take fluoride supplements.

Give your child tap water to drink.

If your water has fluoride added, be sure to give your child tap water to drink instead of bottled water. Most bottled water doesn’t have enough fluoride in it to protect your child’s teeth from decay. Check with your local water provider to make sure your tap water is safe to drink.

Take Action: Fluoride Supplements

Ask for supplements if your water doesn’t have fluoride added.

If your tap water doesn’t have fluoride added, ask your child’s doctor or dentist for fluoride supplements (drops or tablets). Children age 6 months and older can take fluoride supplements.

What about the cost?

Insurance plans must cover fluoride supplements for children who don’t have fluoride in their tap water. Depending on your insurance plan, your child may be able to get fluoride supplements at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out more.

Take Action: Foods and Drinks

Give your child healthy foods.

Healthy foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy, beans, and lean meats — and more! Learn more about healthy food options for your kids:

Make sure your child gets enough calcium.

Calcium is a mineral that helps make teeth strong. Milk, cheese, and yogurt are good sources of calcium. Check out this shopping list of foods with calcium.

Offer your kids healthy drinks.

If sugar from drinks stays on your child’s teeth for too long, it can lead to tooth decay. To help prevent tooth decay:

  • Give your kids only water to drink between meals
  • Only give your kids milk or juice with a meal
Don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle.

Milk or formula will stay on your child’s teeth all night and increase their risk of tooth decay.

Take Action: Dental Checkups

Take your child to the dentist.

Take your child to the dentist for a checkup by age 1. Ask your child’s doctor for the name of a dentist who’s good with kids.

Going to the dentist for the first time can be scary. It might help your child to see you sitting in the dentist’s chair first. You can also ask the dentist to let your child sit on your lap during the checkup.

Ask your child’s dentist about how to clean your child’s teeth and other ways to keep your child’s mouth healthy. After the first visit, make sure to schedule regular dental checkups for your child.

What about the cost?

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover dental care for children. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get dental care at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out more.

Your child may also qualify for free or low-cost health insurance through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Learn about coverage options for your family.

If you don’t have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost dental care. Find a health center near you and ask about dental care.

To learn more, check out these resources:

Ask your child’s dentist about sealants.

A sealant is a thin, plastic material put on the tops of back teeth to help protect them from decay. Ask your dentist if sealants are right for your child. Get more information about sealants.