UW Combined Fund Drive

February 21, 2024

Tend to tender-age teeth during Children’s Dental Health Month

Each February, the American Dental Association promotes National Children’s Dental Health Month to raise awareness about the importance of oral health—and habits of maintenance that should begin at a very young age.

Why? Tooth decay is the most chronic disease of childhood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which reports that 2 in 5 children experience tooth decay in their baby teeth by the time they reach kindergarten—and more than 1 in 2 has a cavity by age 8.

In Washington State, the picture is even worse. Nearly 60 percent of elementary school-age children suffer from tooth decay. More than one in five have cavities in at least seven teeth.

Untreated tooth decay can cause pain, infections and lead to problems eating, speaking and learning. Children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who don’t. And children from lower-income families are twice as likely to have cavities.

The good news is that childhood dental health problems are completely preventable. And healthy dental care in childhood tends to form healthy habits that last a lifetime.

The University of Washington Center for Pediatric Dentistry can help. The partnership of the UW School of Dentistry and Seattle Children’s is committed to providing clinical care, cutting-edge research, public policy advocacy and education, such as answers to these frequently asked questions:

Professional dental care

When should my child have their first dental visit?

To prevent dental problems, your child should see a pediatric dentist when the first tooth appears or no later than his/her first birthday.

How often does my child need to see a pediatric dentist?

A check-up every six months is recommended to prevent cavities and other dental problems. However, your pediatric dentist can tell you when and how often your child should visit based on their personal oral health.

How does a pediatric dentist differ from a family dentist?

Pediatric dentists are the pediatricians of dentistry. They have two to three years specialty training following dental school and provide primary and specialty oral care for infants and children through adolescence.

At-home dental care

What should I use to clean my baby’s teeth?

A toothbrush will remove plaque bacteria that can lead to decay. Any soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head, preferably one designed specifically for infants, should be used at least once a day at bedtime.

Are baby teeth really that important?

Primary, or “baby,” teeth are important for many reasons. Not only do they help children speak clearly and chew naturally, they also aid in forming a path that permanent teeth can follow when they are ready to erupt.

How many times a day should children brush their teeth?

At least twice a day, for at least two minutes—same as adults. Ideally after breakfast and just before bedtime.

Have any good tips for getting a toddler to brush their teeth?

You can sing a song while brushing. Incorporate brushing into morning and nighttime routines. Brush together. Use a favorite stuffed animal to “model” brushing. Let them play with the toothbrush to get used to the feel of it in their mouth. Have them roar like a lion to open wide.

When should a child begin using toothpaste, and how much?

The sooner the better! Starting at birth, clean your child’s gums with a soft infant toothbrush or cloth and water. As soon as the teeth begin to appear, start brushing twice daily using fluoridated toothpaste and a soft, age-appropriate sized toothbrush. Use a “smear” of toothpaste to brush the teeth of a child less than 2 years of age. For the 2-5 year old, dispense a “pea-size” amount of toothpaste and perform or assist your child’s tooth-brushing. Remember that young children do not have the ability to brush their teeth effectively. Children should spit out and not swallow excess toothpaste after brushing.

How often should I change my child’s toothbrush?

Adults and children should change their toothbrush every 3 months because they become worn out and are not as effective as they once were. Exceptions to this would be if you were using an electric toothbrush, and the manufacturer states otherwise. You should always rinse your toothbrush out with hot water after every use and change it after you have been sick.

How many times a day should children floss their teeth?

At least once a day—same as adults. Flossing removes food and plaque from between the teeth, preventing tooth and gum decay. To floss your child’s teeth, wrap the floss around your fingers and gently glide it between the teeth in a C-shape motion. To prevent bacteria from spreading, use a new section of floss each time you move between two teeth.

Everyday situations

When will my child have teeth come in and fall out?

The average age for the first tooth to come in, or “erupt” in infants is 6 months. Your child should have 20 primary (baby) teeth by age 2 ½ to 3. The first permanent molars, or 6-year molars, come in around the age of 6 and they erupt behind all of the primary teeth. Your child should lose their first tooth (lower central incisor) around the age of 6-7 years. The average age for a child to lose their last baby tooth is 12 years of age.

Does it hurt to lose a tooth?

It doesn’t usually hurt, unless you try to remove it before it is ready to come out naturally. Sometimes the dentist has to pull a baby tooth out to make room for the adult tooth to grow in. Dentists do a great job to makes sure this doesn’t hurt.

Are thumb and pacifier sucking harmful for a child’s teeth?

Thumb and pacifier sucking habits will generally only become a problem if they go on for a very long period of time. Most children stop these habits on their own, but if they are still sucking their thumbs or fingers past the age of three, a mouth appliance may be recommended by your pediatric dentist.

What should I do if my child has a toothache?

First, rinse the irritated area with warm salt water and place a cold compress on the face if it is swollen. Give the child acetaminophen for any pain, rather than placing aspirin on the teeth or gums. Finally, see a dentist as soon as possible.

How does snacking affect dental health?

If the whole family enjoys healthy snacks, children will want them, too. Fruit juice, sports drinks, fruit snacks and sticky candies pose a serious threat to your child’s teeth. A healthy snack is low in sugar and high in nutrients. Avoid fruit snacks, sticky candies, fruit juice and sports drinks. Keep low-fat string cheese and yogurt, milk and cut fruit and veggies on hand. Let children choose healthy options at the store and mix-and-match them with hummus, low-fat dips or whole-grain crackers. Limit the number of snack times and save “fun foods” for special occasions.

And make sure to encourage your child to drink water! In addition to keeping kids hydrated, water helps rinse away sugar or food particles that can lead to cavities. And many municipal water sources also contain fluoride, which is recommended by the American Dental Association and the U.S. Surgeon General (among others) as an efficient way to prevent tooth decay.

The UW Center for Pediatric Dentistry

The UW Center for Pediatric Dentistry is the most comprehensive, largest children’s dental clinic in the region, offering access to the latest technology, highly trained children’s dentists, a team of pediatric dental residents and dedicated staff who specialize in providing every child with a positive, successful dental visit.

Services include preventive care, restorative care, care for children with special needs, dental surgery and social work services (financial aid, transportation and interpretation in 120 languages). The Center for Pediatric Dentistry is located in the Washington Dental Service Building in Magnuson Park, 6222 NE 74th St., Seattle.

Click here for more dental and health care resources for families.

How to support

You can support the UW School of Dentistry’s efforts to provide pediatric dental care and education to the community with a donation through the UW Combined Fund Drive:

UW Access to Dental Care – supports dental student volunteer activities in the community that provide oral health education and treatment to those with limited or no access to care (charity code: 1480919).

UW Center for Pediatric Dentistry Peter K. Domoto Fund for Children – ensures access to dental care for children receiving treatment at UW Center for Pediatric Dentistry (charity code: 1480917).

Find more at UW CFD.