To new parents, every one of your child’s “firsts” are exciting. Their first steps, first words, first time rolling over—all these things are signs that your child is developing on-track and growing into a healthy individual. The same is true of your child’s first baby teeth, but with the “eruption” of their new smile comes some responsibilities and knowledge that parents should know. Let’s look at some of the things parents should know about baby teeth when it comes to keeping their child’s mouth healthy.

What’s The Big Deal With Baby Teeth?

All babies are born with 20 “deciduous teeth” or “baby teeth” that are concealed in the jaw and gum line. These teeth begin to emerge around the age of 6 months and should be fully in place by the age of three. Until your child is around 10 years old, these teeth fall out and are replaced by 32 adult or “permanent” teeth. The front teeth, including the top and bottom incisors, are usually the first to erupt, followed by the back teeth or molars.

There’s a temptation among parents to think of deciduous teeth as just placeholders that don’t need the same level of care as adult teeth as they are destined to simply fall out. While it’s true that baby teeth are meant to be transitional, caring for them properly is far more important to both your child’s adult teeth, and their overall health, than you might think.

As soon as your child’s teeth begin to emerge, they are susceptible to decay in the form of cavities. In fact, the hard outer layer of enamel that protects our teeth is much thinner in baby’s teeth, meaning that sugary drinks or snacks, or even bottle formulas, are even more damaging. If baby teeth are damaged, it can lead to problems like pain and infection in your baby’s mouth, or even longer lasting problems like crowding of the adult teeth—which rely on deciduous teeth to act as “spacers” to stay correctly aligned as they emerge. It’s important to create a good oral care routine for your child even before their first baby teeth emerge.

How To Look After Your Child’s Baby Teeth

Looking after your child’s baby teeth isn’t much different from looking after your own. Specifically, brushing, flossing (when they’re old enough) and finding a tooth-healthy diet are the most important steps in keeping baby teeth healthy, but keep in mind that your child will need some help when learning good care techniques and habits in the beginning.

Oral Care Should Start Before The First Tooth Arrives

It can be surprising to think that oral care is required before your child even has any teeth, but the bacteria that cause decay are already present in your child’s mouth! To ensure that they’ve got a good start, just gently wipe their gums with a clean washcloth and warm water after eating and before they go to sleep for the night.

When To Start Brushing With Toothpaste

Once you first notice that your child’s baby teeth have started to emerge, you can start a regiment of gentle brushing with fluoride toothpaste. Make sure you have a brand of toothpaste that is safe for babies and a very soft-bristled brush, and gently brush your child’s teeth at least twice a day.

As they get older and can hold a toothbrush themselves, add a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste to their toothbrush and show them how to hold it at a 45-degree angle to their teeth. Then, gently brush their teeth back and forth, or in small circles. When finished, ensure that they spit out all the toothpaste and don’t swallow any. As your child will learn by watching you, you can set a good example by brushing your teeth with your child until they are at least six years old.

How To Relieve Pain From Teething

As baby teeth erupt from your child’s soft gums, it can cause discomfort. Teething is a natural part of tooth development that everyone goes through, but it can still be painful at the moment. To relieve both swelling and discomfort, you can use a cold compress or washcloth to massage their gums or try using a teething ring—a small, mouth-friendly device that is usually refrigerated—to provide relief.

Bad Habits To Avoid

While they may seem cute or harmless, there are certain childhood habits that can cause damage to your child’s teeth if continued. Because baby teeth are so sensitive to sugar (which can be found in more products than you might expect) certain formulas can cause tooth decay or “milk teeth” in babies. In fact, 40% of children develop cavities before they begin kindergarten, so brushing and avoiding sugar can go a long way.

When To Schedule Your Child’s First Dentist Appointment

Even if you or your child are taking good care of their teeth and everything seems fine, it’s still necessary for your child to see a dentist early in life—usually around 1 year old! It’s important to find a dentist that specializes in children’s dentistry, as they are trained to find potential problems before they get worse. This can be especially true in the small features of a child’s mouth and teeth. To give your child and their baby teeth the best start possible, schedule your first dental appointment for your baby as soon as you see their first teeth start to emerge.