You are here

Caring for Your Child's Teeth

More dental Q&A

Q. Is it true that chewing xylitol gum can help reduce the risk of tooth decay?

Yes. The physical motion of chewing produces more saliva, which helps neutralize pH balance to prevent cavities. And studies have shown that xylitol, a natural sweetener that tastes like sugar, may suppress the growth of bacteria in the mouth.

For kids under 4, any type of gum is a choking hazard. But babies and toddlers can still reap the benefits of xylitol: If Mom chews it during her pregnancy and up to two years postpartum, her child's less likely to develop tooth decay down the road (the bacteria that cause it are often passed from mother to baby through kissing or sharing food).

Q. My toddler grinds his teeth. Should I be concerned?

Tooth grinding (bruxism) happens occasionally in young kids. As your child's mouth grows and changes, he may grind his teeth in order to comfortably align them with his jaw. While it can damage the enamel on baby teeth, they usually fall out before it becomes a problem. And experts say it's uncommon for grinding to do serious harm to permanent teeth because the habit usually goes away on its own by age 6. If you're still worried, or your child hasn't outgrown it by then, talk to your dentist. She may suggest a mouth guard to wear at night, or she may refer you to a myofunctional therapist, who can work with him to balance the muscles in the mouth and get at the cause of the grinding.

Q. Do I really need to wipe my baby's gums with gauze before his teeth come in?

It's a good idea. It will help your baby get used to the feeling of brushing, and sometimes there's a small opening in the gum before the tooth erupts  -- a perfect hiding place for bacteria, which the gauze will wipe away. Payman Pirnazar, a pediatric dentist in Los Angeles and the founder of, recommends that you start wiping your baby's gums after each feeding at around 6 months (it takes just a few seconds). Dentists say it may even have the added benefit of making teething more comfortable for your baby, since as you're cleaning you're also massaging the gums.

Q. What are the best kinds of fillings for children  -- and are there any new, less painful ways to drill for them?

Often it comes down to aesthetics. "If you have a child walking around with metal crowns, it's not uncommon for other kids to start teasing him," says Dr. Pirnazar.

And then there are practical issues: Filling a cavity with composite (a tooth-colored material made of quartz and resin) may take up to 40 minutes  -- as opposed to about ten minutes for an amalgam (metal) filling  -- which is a challenge when the patient is a wiggly kid. On the other hand, composite restorations don't require the dentist to drill as much. And while the ADA maintains that the mercury content in metal fillings is safe, this has been debated, and some parents prefer to skip them.

Laser surgery is the newest way to drill and is said to be less painful, though it's not yet widely available. Because the equipment is expensive, if your dentist offers laser drilling, ask whether there's an extra fee for it.

Q. How is a pediatric dentist different from a family-practice dentist?

Pediatric dentists receive additional training in caring for children's oral health. And they tend to make their offices child-friendly by offering videos, special chairs, or music. The caveat: Since pediatric dentistry is a specialty, there may be fewer practitioners to pick from in your area. Ultimately, though, sizing up any prospective dentist comes down to this: How does she relate to your children? Is she competent? Does she listen to your concerns? The answers to these questions are more important than her title.

Meagan Francis is the author of The Everything Health Guide to Postpartum Care and the mom of four boys, ages 9, 7, 3, and 1, who work hard to give the tooth fairy shiny teeth.