There are so many milestones for parents to keep track of in the first year of their baby’s life: first smile, first word, first time crawling, first solid food, and of course, the emergence of your little one’s first tooth.

As sad as it can be to think of your baby growing up, it’s exciting to see all the new developments in their life. One event that frequently fails to make the cut in baby scrapbooks, though, is the first time you brush their teeth.

Little teeth popping through the gumline can melt your heart, but do you know the recommendations for protecting those baby teeth and promoting good dental health? Don’t worry if the answer is no — just keep reading.

It may be tempting to delay worrying about your little one’s smile until they have a mouthful of teeth, but caring for their oral hygiene should begin much earlier than that. You don’t even need to wait until the first tooth has emerged above the gumline to set your baby up for dental success!

In fact, you can start caring for baby’s gums as soon as they are born.

Gum brushing, 0 months and beyond

Baby’s first tooth could come in anytime in their first 4–12 months. When your baby’s mouth is just a gummy smile, you can use a wet soft cloth or a finger brush to wipe their gums and remove bacteria. This helps to prevent damage to their baby teeth as they begin to arrive and has the added benefit of getting them used to having their mouth brushed.

Baby’s first tooth

As soon as teeth begin appearing above the gumline, it’s recommended that you make sure to brush your child’s teeth for 2 minutes at least twice per day. One of those times should be after their last meal and before bed to avoid allowing food or milk to sit in their mouth overnight.

You should also plan to schedule baby’s first visit with a pediatric dentist following the eruption of their first tooth or before their first birthday, whichever comes first.

This is also a good time to progress from a washcloth or finger brush to a child-sized brush with soft bristles, so you can keep your fingers a little further away from those sharp new incisors!

12–18 months

As baby continues to develop more teeth, it’s important for you to develop good oral hygiene habits.

If you haven’t already started brushing their teeth twice per day, now’s the time to add that into your morning and nighttime routine. You should also make an appointment to take them to see a pediatric dentist at this time, if you haven’t already.

Depending on how many teeth they have at this age, you may also consider children’s floss. While flossing, focus on the back molars where food is more likely to get trapped. You can ask a dentist for tips on flossing your baby’s teeth, including what age they recommend starting based on your child’s teeth.

The methods you use will depend on your baby’s age and the number of teeth they have.

Before your child has teeth

You can begin brushing your baby’s gums with just a washcloth and some water or a finger brush and some water.

Gently wipe all around the gums and make sure to get under the lip region to help reduce bacteria buildup.

After your child has teeth, but before they can spit

Use a damp brush to make gentle circles on the front, back, and top surfaces of all teeth and along the gumline. You may opt to use a smear of toothpaste about the size of a grain of rice for children under age 3.

Help your child angle their mouth downward, so the toothpaste can dribble out into the sink, into a cup, or onto a washcloth. Encourage your child to try spitting the toothpaste out as they are able.

Fluoride toothpaste is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as safe and effective even for young children.

It’s important, however, to use the recommended amounts. If this amount of fluoride is consumed, it should not have negative effects.

Consuming more than this may result in an upset stomach. If this happens, the National Capital Poison Center suggests consuming dairy, which can bind with the fluoride in the stomach.

It’s also important to always supervise your child while they are using toothpaste and to keep toothpaste out of reach of young children.

Fluoride recommendations for children 0–3 years old

Over time, excessive fluoride consumption can damage tooth enamel, so there’s no need to introduce it until the first tooth has appeared above the gumline. Before then, you can stick to water and a washcloth or finger brush.

For children under age 3, the AAP suggests using only a small smear of fluoride toothpaste that is approximately the size of a grain of rice. As your child becomes able, encourage them to spit out the toothpaste and avoid swallowing it.

Fluoride varnish may also be applied at your baby’s dentist or well-baby visits. It’s important for your baby or young child to regularly visit the dentist.

The dentist they can make sure your child’s teeth are developing properly. They may also recommend fluoride supplements if your child drinks only well water or non-fluoridated bottled water, per the American Dental Association.

Fluoride recommendations for children 3–6 years old

For children ages 3 to 6, the AAP suggests a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Make sure your child swallows as little as possible of the toothpaste.

If you find that your little one is less than thrilled when it’s time to clean their mouth, you’re definitely not alone. Before you throw out all the toothbrushes in your house in frustration, give these tricks a try:

  • Try counting or using a special tooth brushing song to help the 2 minutes pass by quickly (e.g., “Brush, Brush, Brush Your Teeth” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”). A visual timer can also make it easier for your child to see how quickly the seconds are counting down until teeth brushing is over.
  • Consider investing in a light-up or motorized toothbrush to make the activity a little more fun. Bonus: These are frequently set to operate for 2 minutes at a time, so no need for you to worry about how long your child has been brushing!
  • Practice taking turns with the toothbrush. Independent toddlers love doing things themselves, and it can certainly make toothbrushing time more fun. Just make sure that you get a turn, too, so that you can guarantee their teeth are good and clean. It’s important to participate in cleaning your child’s teeth until they can thoroughly do so themselves.
  • Rewards for consistency and progress in brushing their own teeth can inspire a little extra effort and a better attitude at the end of the day. These can be tailored in whatever way makes the most sense for you and your child.

The age of your little one and the number of teeth they have will play a big part in choosing the right way to keep their mouth clean.

If your baby doesn’t have teeth yet or is just starting to get teeth, a finger brush or even a washcloth can be a great option. This will prepare them for having something cleaning their mouth and also give you the chance to wipe the bacteria off their gums, so that their growing teeth have a healthy environment to develop in.

As your child begins teething and always wants to stick items in their mouth anyway, they can begin to take a more active role in their dental hygiene by using brushes with nubs or teether-style brushes. These allow your little one to experience controlling a toothbrush-like item in their mouth and enable a little dental cleaning at the same time!

As a bonus, they come in fun shapes, like cacti or sharks or even a banana. These can be offered during playtime (without any toothpaste and always appropriately supervised) as a toy and can also help to relieve some of the discomfort of teething.

Once your child has teeth, it’s time to introduce a toothbrush with soft bristles and toothpaste. A child-sized brush will have a smaller head that can fit better into the nooks and crevices of your child’s mouth.

These come in a variety of colors and patterns to appeal to whatever your child’s interests are. Some are sized with larger handles to make it easier for your toddler to grasp, but it’s important that an adult also be involved when using this type of brush to ensure the entirety of the mouth is cleaned.

You can start to plant the seeds of good dental health long before your child is even old enough to spit out toothpaste. There’s no need to wait for a mouthful of teeth to start brushing!

Like many things in life, practice makes perfect, so it may take some time and patience to perfect their tooth brushing routine. Take comfort though that when your little one has a sparkling smile later in life, you’ll both be grateful for your hard work and perseverance caring for their dental health.