Children's Hospital Colorado

Dental Health

A young boy wearing a blue shirt smiles and brushes his teeth with a purple and pink toothbrush while a doctor with long blonde hair watches in the background.

Tooth decay (also known as cavities or dental caries) is the most common chronic disease for school-age children. Learn more about keeping your kids' teeth healthy with the following FAQs and tips from experts at Children's Hospital Colorado.

Download a printable toothbrushing chart (.pdf).

Healthy baby teeth help your child learn to talk, chew properly and act as placeholders for their permanent teeth. If you want your child’s adult teeth to come in straight and shiny, it is essential to take care of their baby teeth first. 

A decaying baby tooth can fall out too early, causing permanent teeth to come in crowded or crooked. Germs and bacteria can pass from a decaying baby tooth to the permanent tooth developing underneath. This causes damage to the permanent tooth before it even comes in. In severe cases, dental infection can spread to other areas of your child’s face, head and throughout the body, causing other health problems. 

If you suspect your baby already has some tooth decay, contact their dentist or primary care provider, or call our ParentSmart Healthline at 1-855-KID-INFO (543-4636). Our experienced pediatric nurses are available 24/7 to answer your questions or make recommendations.

Source: Valerie Haustein, RDH, MEd

Things that contribute to tooth decay in your little one include:

  • Putting your baby to bed with a bottle or when a bottle is used as a pacifier
  • Frequent drinks that contain sugar, such as juice or soda
  • Bacteria from your own saliva passing to your baby via feeding spoons, pacifiers or any other object you might share or lick
  • Not cleaning their teeth daily
  • Not getting enough fluoride.

To keep your baby’s teeth healthy and cavity-free:

  • Brush your baby’s teeth twice a day with a small smear of fluoride toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice for infants and toddlers and the size of a pea for children three to five years old).
  • Use only breast milk, formula or milk in bottles.
  • Allow enough time for your infant to finish their bedtime and naptime bottles so you can brush their teeth before they fall sleep.
  • Avoid sharing cups and spoons or using your saliva to clean pacifiers.
  • Wipe your baby’s gums with a clean, damp gauze pad or washcloth after each feeding.

Learn how Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Cavity-Free at Three program and The Dental Center can help children of all ages with preventative dental care. 

Source: Valerie Haustein, RDH, MEd

It’s important to care for your baby’s teeth from the start, whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed. You can wipe your baby’s gums with a clean, damp gauze pad or washcloth after each feeding. As soon as their first tooth appears, brush their teeth twice a day with a small smear of fluoride toothpaste.

Breastfeeding is healthy for your child, but cleaning their teeth is also important. Cavities are preventable—establish good dental hygiene habits for your infant early on and you’ll teach them to care for themselves and prevent pain, costly treatment and life-threatening infections. Learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding.

Source: Valerie Haustein, RDH, MEd

A child’s first dental appointment is a milestone. You should make an appointment by the time your child turns one or when their first tooth comes in. If you think your baby might need to see a dentist before then, contact your primary care provider or the Children’s Hospital Colorado Dental Center

Source: Dr. Katherine Chin, DDS, MS

You understand how important taking care of one’s teeth is, but your little one probably views teeth-brushing as a chore. It only takes a minute or two and is important for their overall health. Children are motivated by fun, so tap into that with a few simple tricks.

  • Play copycat. Bring your child into the bathroom with you while you brush your teeth. Exaggerate your movements, show excitement, make funny faces during brushing and encourage your child to mimic you.
  • Make brushing a part of bath time. If your child loves bath time, try brushing their teeth before, so that getting into the tub is a reward. Or,  brush their teeth while they’re actually taking their bath— they might be more receptive when they’re feeling playful and relaxed.
  • Turn the toothbrush into a toy. Have your child brush their favorite stuffed animal’s “teeth” or switch roles and have them brush your teeth for a change. 
  • Go online. Look up a brushing song to sing together as part of your routine, have them watch a video of other kids brushing their teeth or find a book that shows colorful and engaging characters brushing their teeth.
  • Remind them “it only takes a minute.” Remind your child that brushing their teeth is necessary, not a choice. Think about making their bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier and don’t wait until it’s so late that you and your child are tired. 

Your child cannot do a good job cleaning their teeth without your help. Start small, offer your child choices whenever possible, keep at it and avoid getting sucked into a power struggle. Your child will eventually catch on that brushing is a regular activity. Learn more about dealing with meltdowns and positive parenting.

Source: Dr. Scott Hamilton, DDS

Once your child has their first tooth, you can start using a small smear of fluoride toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) to prevent cavities. A two- or three-year old can begin learning to rinse and spit. Keep fluoride toothpaste out of reach of children— use the proper amount only, supervise older children and store it safely in a medicine cabinet that’s out of reach of young children. 

Source: Dr. Scott Hamilton, DDS

Often, your child’s dentist will notice any problems and recommend that you see an orthodontist— one more reason to keep up with your child’s regular dental appointments. The orthodontist can help with braces or other therapies to correct any jaw and/or teeth alignment problems. 

Some kids see an orthodontist for the first time when they’re six, others not until ten or as a teenager. A general guideline is that most children should see an orthodontist at least once by the time their permanent teeth start coming in, usually around age seven. 

If you’re not sure if your child needs to see an orthodontist, contact their dentist or primary care provider, or call our ParentSmart Healthline at 1-855-KID-INFO (543-4636). Our experienced pediatric nurses are available 24/7 to answer your questions or make recommendations.

Source: Ulrich Klein, DMD, DDS, MS

Yes. Your child should be wearing a mouth guard if they are participating in contact sports (football, hockey, wrestling, etc.) or a sport where they could be hit by a ball (baseball, softball, soccer, etc.). According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, sports accidents make up 10 to 39% of all dental injuries in children. 

“Boil and bite” mouth guards can be purchased at a sporting goods store, or you can order a custom fitted guard from your dentist. A properly fitted mouth guard will protect your child’s soft tissue, tongue and lips and reduce the risk of chipping or breaking a tooth during sports. 

Learn more about keeping your kids healthy while they participate in sports. 

Source: Valerie Haustein, RDH, MEd

  • Good oral health habits start early. Help your toddler brush their teeth and stick to a twice-daily routine.
  • Use oral care products designed for children. Kids are likely to brush more often and for longer if they use toothbrushes and toothpaste that fit in their smaller mouths and that feature fun designs.
  • See the dentist regularly and explain to your child that checkups are necessary, not a choice. Visiting the dentist will keep their teeth healthy and strong so they can continue to eat, grow and smile.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough fluoride. Most toothpastes contain fluoride, but toothpaste alone will not fully protect your child’s teeth. Check to see if your water is fluoridated; if it isn’t, ask your dentist about fluoride supplements. 
  • Limit sugary foods and drinks. Juices (even those claiming to be 100% juice), sodas and candy (especially anything sticky— gummy candy, gummy vitamins, taffy or fruit leather or “roll-ups”) fuel germs and can erode enamel, causing cavities. Offer your child nutritious snacks and water as alternatives. When your child does eat or drink sugary foods, have them rinse or brush their teeth soon after.
  • As your child gets older, add flossing to the routine. You might need to help them floss during the period when their motor skills are still developing.
  • Be a role model for your child. Your child is much more likely to take care of their teeth if you take care of yours. 

Source: Valerie Haustein, RDH, MEd

Pre-teens and adolescents often experiment with smoking, vaping and smokeless tobacco products. At this age, they’ve probably already heard about the negative health effects of tobacco use, but do they know that these products can also cause tooth decay, gingivitis and gum diseases like periodontitis? 

Tobacco also affects something every teenager cares about— their appearance. Smoking, vaping and chewing can all lead to yellowing teeth and bad breath.

Source: Dr. Katherine Chin, DDS, MS

Dental health tips for kids

  • Use toothpaste with fluoride

    • Fluoride is a natural mineral that strengthens teeth against cavities.
    • Use a small dollop the size of a grain of rice for children ages 1 to 3.
    • Increase to a pea-size amount for children ages 4 and up.
    • Drink tap water or bottled water containing fluoride.
  • Teach kids how to brush

    • Brush for 1 to 2 minutes twice a day.
    • Brush teeth, gums and tongue.
  • Establish a routine

    • Brush after breakfast and before bedtime.
    • Never skip the bedtime brushing.
    • Schedule regular dental care every 3 to 6 months.
    • Wean baby off the bottle by age 1.
    • Don’t put baby to bed with a bottle or sippy cup.
    • Drink milk at mealtime and water in between.
    • Drink more water, and less juice and soda.
    • Eat more fruits, vegetables and cheese when snacking.
  • Help kids participate

    • Let kids participate in brushing their own teeth.
    • Fine motor coordination happens around 7 to 8 years old, so children will need some help until then.

Learn how we're helping improve oral health for kids in Aurora Public Schools.

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