Oral hygiene for babies before the teeth have erupted
The milk teeth — or the primary teeth — start to erupt around the age of six months. Before that time, parents should care for the gums of their children, but this does not involve the use of a brush or any toothpaste for that matter.
Since the baby does not have teeth, their diet at that age is going to consist of milk and other liquids or semi-solids. No teeth means no decay to worry about, however, the bacterial population of the mouth starts to develop immediately after birth.
Parents are encouraged to use a moist cloth or a piece of gauze to gently wipe the gums after the meals of the child. This will prevent the growth of harmful disease-causing bacteria which can harm the milk teeth soon after they erupt in the mouth.
It is also more important to clean the gums of the child before bedtime than at any other time. Our saliva has certain antibodies and properties that help it protect the teeth in the mouth but the flow of saliva is reduced during the night. This is why the growth of harmful bacteria reaches a peak during the night, and consequently why cleaning the gums before sleeping is important.
A lot of parents also give their babies a bottle of sweetened milk to help them sleep at night. Many times, this bottle remains in the mouth for long after the baby has fallen asleep. Sleeping habits can be notoriously difficult to change in babies and this is why we cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding this altogether.
"Nursing bottle caries" is a condition that is seen very commonly in children who sleep with a bottle of milk. The milk pools around their lower teeth and allows the rapid growth of decay-causing bacteria which affects a number of teeth together. The end result can be the destruction of many milk teeth at the same time, causing pain and discomfort to the child.
Maintaining good oral hygiene in infants whose teeth have not yet erupted or have just done so is more about the diet and developing good habits than brushing. Food which is low in sugar, unsweetened milk, and food formulas should be used.
When should parents start brushing their children’s teeth?
A common query dentists get asked is about the teeth being "soft" and then becoming hard enough to brush as the child becomes older. There is no truth to this. The teeth are mineralized to their final hardness while still inside the jaw and erupt into the mouth at their final state. In fact, if the teeth were "softer", the need to keep them free of plaque would be even greater.
Is toothpaste safe to use for babies?
Brushing the teeth and keeping them clean is more of a mechanical process than a chemical one. You can keep the teeth clean without using any toothpaste whatsoever, but cannot keep the teeth clean by just using toothpaste without a brush.
There are certain kinds of toothpaste that are formulated for use in children. The pediatrician or the pediatric dentist would be able to guide you to the right toothpaste to use. The non-foaming kinds of toothpaste are easier to use for children and are recommended to help them get used to brushing.
Whatever the kind of toothpaste, though, make sure that only a tiny amount is used. The idea is to brush all the surfaces of the teeth and the tongue, for which a toothbrush is all that is needed. If the baby does not like the toothpaste then just don’t use any until he or she grows a little older and is able to understand better.
Brushing is not recommended for babies whose teeth have not yet come in. Even the softest of brushes can cause lacerations when used on the gums and end up causing more harm than good. A simple oral hygiene regimen of wiping down the gums a couple of times in the day and once before sleeping is all that is needed.
Once the baby teeth start to peep through the gums, though, then brushing becomes very important. Habits like brushing twice a day may seem like a chore in the beginning but they are very important in avoiding dental treatment, which can be particularly difficult for children to go through.
Once a tooth has started to decay, there is no amount of brushing that can get rid of it. Only a cavity prepared and filled by a dentist will stop the decay from progressing further.