Young child flexing tongue over upper gum. Photo credit: Chayene Rafaela on Unsplash

The Best Oral Health Habits for Your Young Child

Your child can begin a path to good oral health during early childhood, with your supervision and positive modeling. All oral habits—good and bad—affect the way children’s teeth, jaws, faces, and overall health develop. Here are answers to nine important questions you may have about your child’s oral health habits.

Should I give my baby a bedtime bottle?

Baby sleeping on her back. Your young child should finish her bottle before she goes to bed. Photo credit: Tara Raye on Unsplash Avoid bedtime bottles. The American Dental Association recommends that babies and young children finish their bedtime bottles before they go to bed. However, if your young child takes a bottle to bed, be sure to fill it with water only. When children drink from bottles as they fall asleep, sugar from other types of drinks—even those with only natural sugar, such as juice or milk—remains in their mouths overnight and can lead to cavities in their developing teeth.

When should my child stop using a pacifier?

Try to discontinue pacifier use by age 1. “Constant sucking on a pacifier can negatively affect the shape of a young child’s developing jaw bones,” says Donna Greco, DMD. As a child matures, improper facial development can lead to serious health issues including behavioral, breathing, and sleep problems. By weaning your child off the pacifier by age 1, you can help to avoid these issues.

At what age should my child start seeing the dentist?

If you’re planning your child’s first birthday celebration, plan a dental appointment too. Because young children’s teeth normally begin to appear between 6 and 12 months of age, shortly before your child’s first birthday is a perfect time for a first dental visit! Your child’s new teeth will benefit from proper dental care and good oral hygiene habits right from the beginning.

At what age should my child stop using a sippy cup?

Outdoor winter scene with a young child drinking from a cup. Teach your child to drink from a regular cup by the age of 18 months or so. Photo credit: Vladislav Nikonov on Unsplash It’s best to teach young children to drink on their own from a regular cup by the age of 18 months or so. Similar to the effects of sucking on a pacifier, the way young children suck from sippy cups does not encourage a mature swallowing pattern. This can affect the way the muscles in a child’s mouth and face develop, and may lead to future health issues. Read more.

When should children stop sucking their thumbs?

A young child sucks her fingers as she falls asleep. Photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash If your child is past age 18 months, encourage her to stop sucking her thumb. It’s natural and normal for infants and very young children to suck their fingers and thumbs. Their sucking reflex enables them to get nutrition, and the habit can be soothing for them. Most children who suck their thumbs will stop as they learn to eat solid food and drink from a regular cup. Those who persist past age 18 months may have difficulty developing a mature swallowing pattern, which—similar to issues resulting from extended pacifier and sippy cup use—can result in health issues requiring correction. For children past 18 months old who haven’t given up thumb-sucking, you can try gently encouraging them to stop. If your child is older than age 2 ½ and still sucks her thumb, ask your dentist about fitting her with a simple oral appliance that is painless and helps to replace the thumb-sucking habit with an entertaining tongue exercise.

Should I be concerned about my child’s mouth breathing?

If your young child is mouth breathing, tell your pediatrician and your child’s dentist. When a child breathes mostly through her mouth, her tongue may eventually drop and cause her jaw to position down and forward. This can strain her jaw joint and the muscles surrounding it, which may lead to headaches, facial pain, sleep apnea, and TMJ pain. In young children, mouth breathing may also contribute to ADHD and other behavioral issues, bed-wetting, irritability, daytime sleepiness, and snoring.

Without treatment, this orthopedic condition can cause your growing child’s face and/or head to grow long and skinny, instead of round. This can lead to narrowing of the child’s nasal passages and the back of her throat, which in turn creates a breathing disorder. However, a specially trained dentist (who may work in collaboration with pediatricians and ENT specialists) can correct this—often with a simple oral appliance—and restore proper breathing function and facial growth, especially while your child is still growing. That’s why it’s important for you to screen your child early, preferably by age 5.

From a medical perspective, children who breathe mostly through their mouths are more likely to develop strep throat and enlarged tonsils and adenoids. When this is the case, a physician may recommend removing your child’s tonsils and adenoids, but this doesn’t fix the source of the problem, which is the orthopedic issue that causes the mouth-breathing. Only correcting the underlying orthopedic condition can help a child to regain the ability to breathe nasally. As the problem resolves, the child’s nasal passages will open up, and their adenoids and tonsils will shrink.

Are gummy vitamins bad for my child’s teeth?

When it comes to your child’s teeth, gummy vitamins may do more harm than good. They taste good and many children love them—but that’s because many brands of gummy vitamins have a high sugar content. “They are literally vitamin fortified candy,” says pediatrician Kirstin Campbell, MD. Gummy vitamins may also contain a smaller variety of vitamins and lower amounts than traditional chewables, due to limitations of the gummy delivery system.

Dr. Campbell also cautions against “overdoses” of gummy vitamins and other types of children’s vitamins. Because of the enjoyable flavor, unsupervised children may consume unsafe amounts of these vitamins, which in some cases could lead to kidney stones and other serious health issues. Instead, teaching your child to eat a healthy diet is one of the best ways to help her achieve good oral health.

When should my child start learning to floss?

When your child reaches age 18 months or so, it’s a great time to introduce flossing. As soon as your child has multiple teeth that touch each other, you can begin. In the drugstore, you’ll find children’s flossers with bright colors and animal shapes; or you can just choose regular dental floss. Use whatever is most comfortable for you and your child. Whatever you choose, the most important thing is to introduce the concept of flossing and make it part of your child’s oral care routine.

With your help and your patient example, children as young as age 3 can begin to try flossing on their own. Keep in mind that it will take them some time to get comfortable with flossing. At this age, their motor skills are developing and will continue to do so until age 12 or so. But by starting young, children can get used to a good oral care routine. Regular practice is important. Encourage them to do their best; then you can brush and floss their teeth to be sure they are thoroughly clean. To make your job easier, ask them to lie on a couch or a bed with the top of their head you so you can see everything in their mouths. Playing audio books, music, or videos is a great way to entertain your little ones while you work!

What’s the best kind of food for my toddler’s teeth and gums?

A young child sits in an orchard and eats a raw apple. Photo credit: Patrick Fore on Unsplash Natural is best when it comes to your toddler’s teeth and gums. Crunchy, firm fruits and vegetables; lean meats, fish, and vegan proteins; low-carb nuts; natural foods high in calcium and phosphorus; and unsweetened drinks are best for promoting oral health and overall health. Read details here.