SUNDAY, Jan. 8, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Baby teeth may not be permanent, but dentists say they require just as much cleaning and care as adult teeth.
The reason: Neglecting them can cause your child pain and create lifetime consequences for their dental health.
About 20 percent of children already have tooth decay by age 3, according to the American Dental Association.
Not only do these kids experience pain from cavities, they run the risk of having their permanent teeth come in incorrectly, said Katie L. Dawson, president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association, and a dental hygienist in Oakland, Calif.
"Baby teeth direct the permanent teeth that are developing underneath," Dawson said. Failure to keep them healthy can lead to expensive orthodontia work later in childhood. "The child also suffers because of the pain in the tooth," she said.
Even before the first tooth appears, parents should get their babies used to having their gums cleaned by running a wet washcloth around in their mouth. Or you can use a finger brush made of terry cloth or soft rubber, Dawson said.
"Bacteria sets up a haven in the mouth, and once those teeth start coming in it's hard to introduce cleaning to a baby," she said. "It's almost like preparing the baby for cleaning."
Once a baby's first tooth erupts, parents need to pay even closer attention -- a fact that comes as a surprise to some parents. "A number of parents aren't aware that they need to take care of baby teeth," Dawson said.
One reason those baby teeth need lots of TLC is because they're more prone to cavities than adult teeth, said Dr. Jonathan D. Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Bangor, Maine, and an assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at Boston University.
"When teeth erupt into a child's mouth, they're not completely hardened or mineralized," Shenkin said. "They can be more susceptible to decay."
Neglecting their care can leave your child vulnerable to cavities and fillings that last through much of childhood, he explained.
"A lot of these teeth need to stay in their child's mouth up until the age of 12," Shenkin said.
Parents should clean their infant's teeth with a child-sized toothbrush and a little water, according to the American Dental Association. They can begin using a pea-sized amount of toothpaste once the child is 2 years old and is able to spit out the paste and not swallow it.
Flossing should begin as soon as two of the child's teeth begin to touch.
Diet also can help preserve an infant's dental health, Dawson said. "Don't allow your children to go to bed with a bottle containing any beverage other than water," she said. "Even milk, which has sugars. With those sugars, you've got this constant attack on the teeth."
Children should be allowed to start using a toothbrush as soon as they have the manual dexterity to handle the job. "As soon as they can hold a toothbrush in their hand, it's important to show them how to manipulate it in their mouth," Shenkin said.
However, parents shouldn't confuse the ability to work the toothbrush with an ability to brush teeth properly, he added. Parents should go in and brush after the child is done up to age 6, and continue monitoring until age 10.
"It's important that the parent goes in after the child is finished and do a more thorough job," Shenkin advised.
Again, diet also plays a role in protecting the teeth of children as they grow older and begin getting their permanent teeth.
In a study published in 2004 in the Journal of the American Dental Association, Shenkin found that children who don't eat breakfast every day have higher levels of tooth decay, mainly because they tend to snack more. The same held true for children who don't eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Dentists say parents should limit the breads, pastas and sugary snacks or drinks their children eat.
Shenkin recommends restricting children to 4 to 6 ounces of juice a day. "I'd prefer to have that consumed at a meal where water is also consumed," he said.
Finally, parents should take their children for their first trip to the dentist about six months after their first tooth erupts, Shenkin noted.
But even dentists have trouble following that guideline, he added. "Most dentists want children to sit in their chairs as soon as they can be quiet," he said. "That's around four."
To learn more, visit the American Dental Association.