the Australian Dental Association
Written by the Australian Dental Association, Sep 22, 2023
Fact Checked

Good oral health care should begin in infancy and is key during early childhood years to set your child up for good oral health during their life.

Setting your children up for good oral health starts early, even before baby teeth start to appear. That’s why we’ve written this dental care for babies and toddlers guide, so you know what to expect as your child grows and dental health care needs change. As always if you’re unsure about symptoms or have a more urgent need, please seek advice from a dentist. Use the ADA's Find-A-Dentist search tool to find an ADA member dentist near you.

Baby teeth development 

Baby teeth, as they are often called, are the teeth present in the mouth during childhood. The clinical term for these teeth is deciduous teeth or primary teeth. This set of teeth begin developing while babies are still in the womb.

Baby teeth commonly start to appear in the mouth around 9 months of age, but timing can range from 3 to 12 months. Like all developmental milestones, the time your baby gets its first teeth is individual. However, if your child does not have any teeth present in their mouth by 12 months of age, it is best to have a check-up with a dentist. It is not abnormal for baby teeth to arrive in any order, although the central bottom teeth are often first. All 20 baby teeth will usually arrive by the time your child is three years old.

Teeth in babies and children are called deciduous or primary teeth, but you’ll often also hear them called "baby teeth".

Teething symptoms & advice

Infants can begin showing signs of teething as early as 3 months of age. Symptoms of teething can include drooling, gum rubbing, biting or mouthing objects or being more irritable than usual.

Symptoms that should not automatically be associated with teething include difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite, coughing, rashes, diarrhoea, vomiting, seizures, or a very high fever. It is best to see your doctor if your child is experiencing these symptoms to rule out other illnesses.

The lower front teeth are often the first teeth to appear with teeth further back in the mouth to come through over the next 24-30 months. See the infographic below for a guide on when you can expect different teeth to erupt.

Listen to the ADA's Watch Your Mouth podcast episode on tooth development and teething.

When a child is teething, it can be tough to make them comfortable. Some suggestions include:

  • Attention and cuddles.
  • Chilled teething rings or washcloths (not frozen).
  • Rubbing the back of a cold spoon over the gums.
  • Using a pacifier/dummy.

Be careful if you choose to use the following remedies.

Teething gels

Cold gels can provide relief at first, but this may only last for a short amount of time as the gel is washed away by saliva. Infants can swallow the teething gel placed on the gums and it can be hard to know how much is swallowed. This can make the throat numb causing a choking hazard.

A pacifier/dummy

Do not dip a dummy in sugary spreads such as honey or jam as this can increase your child's risk of tooth decay if they already have teeth present in their mouth.

Amber beads

Beaded necklaces or bracelets are a potential choking hazard and unlikely to provide any pain relief for your teething child.

When should your baby first visit a dentist?

Your baby’s first dental visit should occur around the time their first tooth appears in their mouth or at 1 year of age, whichever comes first.

The average Australian child's first visit to the dentist is 4 years of age. By this age, children may have already developed tooth decay or worse they may attend their first dental visit for treatment of a toothache.

Attending the dentist regularly from an early age can help you in caring for your child’s oral health by detecting tooth decay early or preferrably, preventing it by receiving advice on keeping your child’s teeth healthy. Establishing a ‘dental home’ and building a relationship with a dentist early on helps your child to become comfortable in the dental clinic and creates a trusting relationship with their dentist.

At the first dental visit, as well as looking at your child’s teeth, this visit allows for the dentist and parent/s to discuss several topics, including:

  • tips for cleaning your child’s teeth,
  • what to expect as your child’s mouth continues to develop,
  • thumb sucking and/or pacifier use,
  • the risk of tooth decay and how to prevent it,
  • prevention and management of injury to your child’s teeth, and
  • advice on tooth-friendly foods and drinks.

Listen to the ADA's Watch Your Mouth podcast episode on first dental visits.

If you receive a Government benefit, such as Family Tax Benefit A payments, your child may be eligible for the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. This Government benefit provides each eligible child $1,013 of general dental treatment over a two-year period. To check if your child is eligible, call Medicare on 132 011, or check your Medicare online account through MyGov.

Brushing and flossing tips

Good oral hygiene habits should begin early to build a foundation for good dental health into the future. Introduce a toothbrush around 6 months of age or when your baby gets their first tooth. Parents and guardians should brush baby's and young children's teeth for them to ensure all surfaces are cleaned. Before introducing a toothbrush, you may like to use a clean, damp washcloth or muslin cloth to clean your baby's gums. Look to use a toothbrush with a small head and soft bristles.

The recommended amount of time to brush is two minutes. However, for infants and young children who only have a few teeth, this amount of time will obviously be a little too long. When brushing the teeth of infants and young children, just ensure that all teeth and surfaces have been reached. As children get older with more or all teeth present in the mouth, begin brushing with the aim of reaching two minutes although we understand that this can be a tricky task. Brushing time can be made more fun by playing a song or using a phone app that has a built-in brushing timer to help you brush for two minutes. Phone apps also provide positive reinforcement in the form of stickers and awards. Physical brushing charts and stickers are also a great positive reinforcement option for daily brushing.

Listen to the ADA's Watch Your Mouth podcast episode on caring for the oral health of babies and toddlers. 
TIP: Until 18 months of age, a toothbrush should be used with water only, no toothpaste.
Toothpaste should be introduced at 18 months of age. In Australia, low-fluoride toothpaste is recommended for children aged 18 months to 6 years. These are commonly referred to as ‘children’s toothpaste’. The amount of fluoride added to children’s toothpaste is less than toothpastes created and recommended for children older than 6 years of age and adults.

Cleaning between your child's teeth using floss is also recommended from a young age. Once your child has two teeth touching side by side, in between these teeth should be cleaned using dental floss. This is often around 2 years. Your dentist can show you techniques and items that can make this an easier process.

Tooth-friendly foods and drinks

As well as daily brushing and flossing, it is also important to limit your child’s sugary food and drink intake to decrease their risk of developing tooth decay. Added sugar is one of the biggest factors that contribute to the development of tooth decay. Beware though, it is not just well-known sugary foods such as lollies, cakes, and biscuits. Foods such as breakfast cereal, muesli bars and flavoured yoghurts can have a lot of extra sugar as well.

When it comes to drinks, other than breastmilk for breastfed babies, water and milk are the best drink choices for healthy teeth. These are the only liquids that should be placed in a baby’s bottle.

Soft drink, cordial and fruit juice can be high in sugar which can increase your child’s risk of developing tooth decay. Sugar-free soft drinks and cordials are not recommended as a replacement as they can still affect the teeth by wearing away the tooth enamel (known as tooth erosion). If you give your toddler some fruit juice, place it in a cup rather than a bottle and limit the amount provided to half a cup (125ml) per day. Fresh fruit and a drink of water make a great tooth-friendly snack to replace fruit juice.

Listen to the ADA's Watch Your Mouth podcast episode on tooth-friendly foods and drinks for infants and toddlers.

Snack options such as carrot or celery sticks, cheese and fresh fruit are great tooth-friendly options. Making your child’s meals and snacks from scratch can help you to decrease the amount of sugar included in their foods and allows you to use fresh ingredients. If your child has a sweet treat, try to include it as part of main mealtimes and limit ongoing snacking between main meals.

Lift the lip

You can check your child’s teeth at home by lifting their top lip and rolling down their bottom lip to look at their teeth. If you see white, brown, or black spots on the teeth that do not rub or brush away, it is best to make an appointment with your dentist to have the teeth checked. These spots can be a sign of tooth decay.

This does not replace a check-up by a dental professional.

Dental trauma in babies and toddlers

Young children learning to walk and move about on their own will commonly experience bumps and falls. If your baby or toddler knocks their front tooth causing it to come out of the mouth completely, this should not be put back into your child's mouth. Only adult teeth should be placed back in the mouth if they are knocked out. Placing the baby tooth back where it came from in the mouth may cause damage to the adult tooth that is developing under the gum. 

Take the knocked-out tooth with you and see a dentist as soon as possible. Your dentist will review the knocked-out tooth as well as check that there has been no other damage to the surrounding bone, lips and cheeks or any other teeth. 

Read more about dental trauma.