Kids Health Info

Dental care

  • Each year, more than 26,000 Australian children under the age of 15 are admitted to hospital because they have decay or holes in their teeth, making dental disease the highest cause of acute, preventable hospitalisations. 

    Dental disease and tooth decay can cause poor nutrition, growth, and development, and can negatively impact a child’s quality of life.  Children who have dental disease often continue to have poor oral health as an adult.

    To prevent tooth decay, your child’s teeth need to be cleaned twice a day from the time the first tooth pushes through the gum.

    Development of teeth

    Children get their teeth at different times, but most babies will get their first tooth between six months and 10 months. Most children will have all their baby teeth by the time they are three years old.

    Adult teeth replace baby teeth between the ages of six and 12 years. The wisdom teeth are the last teeth to emerge, coming through in the late teens. Your child will start losing baby teeth around the age of six. Let loose teeth fall out on their own – if you try to pull out a tooth before it’s ready to fall out, you might damage the tooth or gums, which can cause pain and infection.

    Sometimes an adult tooth will come through before the baby tooth has fallen out. If this happens and the baby tooth hasn’t fallen out within two to three months, you should see your dentist.

    Care at home

    Brushing

    It’s important to get children in the habit of looking after and brushing their teeth.

    Babies and toddlers will need an adult to brush their teeth twice a day, using a small, soft toothbrush. For babies without teeth, a cloth can be used to clean the gums. When teeth push through, use a toothbrush with only water. For children aged 18 months to six years, you can use a pea-sized amount of low-fluoride toothpaste.

    Once children are around two years old, they can start to help brush their teeth by holding the toothbrush. Until your child is around eight years old, they should have adult supervision or help when cleaning teeth to make sure they brush properly.

    As your child’s teeth start to fit closely together (usually between two and six years old), they should also be taught to floss their teeth daily. By the time children are 10 years old, they can start flossing on their own without the help of an adult.

    Young children are more likely to clean their teeth regularly if it is a fun activity and part of their usual routine.

    Some suggestions for keeping young children interested in brushing include:

    • singing songs
    • brushing with others (siblings or parents)
    • using a special toothbrush that they have chosen (it may have characters printed on it or is a favourite colour)
    • giving your child a separate toothbrush to play with (e.g. while you brush their teeth, they can brush a teddy’s teeth).

    Fluoride

    Extensive research supports the safety and benefits of fluoride in preventing tooth decay. In most parts of Australia, tap water is treated and contains fluoride, making it a healthier choice for teeth than bottled water. Tap water that has been boiled and cooled will still contain fluoride, so is beneficial for babies when used in formula.

    Tap water can be offered to children from six months of age and should be the main drink for all children from 12 months old.

    What causes tooth decay?

    Tooth decay is caused when bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar from food and drinks. These bacteria produce acid, which damages the enamel (the surface of a tooth) and causes holes (dental caries or cavities) in the tooth.

    Children who clean their teeth properly are still at risk of tooth decay if their diet is unbalanced. More and more Australian children have tooth decay because of increased consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks (soft drinks, cordials, fruit drinks, juice, sports drinks and flavoured milk) and foods (lollies, chocolate, fruit bars).

    Healthy choices for food and drink will help look after your child’s teeth (see our fact sheets Nutrition – babies and toddlers and Nutrition – school-age to adolescence). Also avoid putting your child to bed with a bottle of anything other than water, as this can increase the chances of tooth decay.

    When to see a dentist

    It is recommended that all children visit the dentist when the first tooth pushes through or by 12 months of age. Taking a child to the dentist early and when there are no problems with their teeth allows them to get to know your dentist and have a positive experience, which can make future visits more familiar.

    All children should visit the dentist regularly (every six to 12 months) for a check-up, even if they don’t appear to have any problems. Visiting the dentist regularly can help with prevention, early detection, and treatment of tooth decay.

    Disease and decay

    If detected early, it’s possible to stop decay from getting worse. Early decay often doesn’t produce symptoms, so by the time symptoms do appear, tooth decay is in its late stages and may not be fixable. Signs of advanced decay include:

    • toothache
    • pain
    • sensitivity to hot, cold or sweet foods.

    If your child has any signs of decay, you should see your dentist. Tooth decay often is treated with fillings, but severe cases may need a root canal or the tooth may need to be removed.

    Dental trauma and first aid

    If your child has an injury to their teeth or gums, you should see your dentist. Most dental injuries occur during sport, so it is especially important for children playing contact sports to wear mouthguards. Parents and carers should also learn first aid for a knocked-out tooth in the case of a sporting accident. See our fact sheet Broken or dislodged tooth.

    Government-funded dental care

    Free dental services are available for children in Australia under the public dental system. In Victoria, most children under 12 years of age can access routine dental care through a public clinic for no charge. Children under 17 years of age may also be eligible for subsidised public dental treatment. Dental treatment is also provided for a fee at private clinics throughout Victoria.

    The Australian Government’s Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS) funds a range of dental services including examinations, cleaning, fillings, and root canals at public and private dental clinics. Children aged between two and 17 years, whose parents receive family tax benefit A, are eligible for CDBS. You can check if you are eligible by contacting the Department of Human Services.

    Key points to remember

    • Children should have their first dental visit when the first tooth pushes through.
    • Children should see a dentist every six to 12 months even if they have no problems with their teeth.
    • All children should brush their teeth twice a day to help prevent tooth decay.
    • The main drink for children should be tap water – avoid sugary foods and drinks.

    For more information


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information and Dentistry departments. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Developed March 2018.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.