Once the child is born, parents should start keeping the mouth clean even before the first baby tooth has erupted.
The ADHA recommends thoroughly cleaning an infant's gums after each feeding with a water-soaked infant washcloth or gauze pad to stimulate the gum tissue and remove food.
"Even before they have teeth, you can clean out their mouths and get the kids used to the idea of it," Connor said.
When the baby's teeth begin to erupt, parents should brush them gently with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush using a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste.
At age 2 or 3, a parent can begin to teach their child proper brushing techniques. However, the child will need help with brushing and flossing up through age 7 or 8. By then, they will have developed the dexterity to do it alone.
Parents also should be cautious about inadvertently sharing their own mouth's bacteria with their child, through even the most seemingly innocuous behavior.
"Decay bugs can be transmitted through sharing food and drink, through sharing a toothbrush or sharing utensils," Bomkamp said. "Even blowing on food, your saliva can be transmitted to the child."
Watching what children eat also can help protect them from developing cavities or large amounts of decay bacteria in their mouths. This includes making sure that kids are fed regular meals throughout the day, especially breakfast, to keep them from feeling the need to snack on unhealthy foods.
One recent study found that the odds of decay in baby teeth were greater in the children with poor eating habits. Children who don't eat breakfast every day had higher levels of tooth decay, the study found, as did those who don't eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
"If they're eating several snac
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