Baby teeth play a key role in the eruption of adult teeth.

Your child’s mouth goes through dramatic changes as they age—baby teeth come in and are slowly replaced by adult teeth as your child’s jaws grow to create more room for them. Even though baby teeth are temporary, they play an important role in helping your child eat and speak and guiding their adult teeth into their proper spaces. If baby teeth are lost too early, the remaining teeth shift into the gap, causing your child’s adult teeth to come in crooked or resulting in overcrowding—both of which can increase the amount of orthodontic work your child will need in the future.

It’s incredibly important to teach your little one to take care of their teeth as they age so that their adult teeth are healthy from day one—and remain that way. Here’s what you can expect from your child’s dental development and how you can keep their teeth healthy throughout each step of it.

Understanding the Life Cycle of Baby and Adult Teeth

Your child’s first baby teeth begin to erupt between the ages of six and 12 months; they should be fully erupted by the time your child is three years old. Teeth play a role in helping your child form words and to eat, but as we mentioned above, their greatest role is helping your child’s adult teeth to erupt properly. Despite this important job, baby teeth are particularly vulnerable to decay because they have a thinner layer of protective enamel than adult teeth, so you and your child need to be diligent about their oral hygiene from an early age.

Adult teeth usually begin coming in when they’re six or seven years old. Generally, your child will have all their adult teeth—except their wisdom teeth, which come in later—at around 13 years old. In addition to helping your child speak and smile, adult teeth each help us eat in a unique, special way. The incisors’ job is to chop and cut food, the canines tear it, premolars grind food up, and molars grind food and help your child to swallow. This means each tooth is incredibly important—they work best as a complete team. Once your child has their permanent teeth, they won’t be getting any more, so it’s incredibly important that they know how to take great care of their teeth and gums.

Create a simple and fun oral hygiene routine for your child.

Just like adults, children need to brush their teeth two times a day for two minutes each time in order to keep their teeth healthy. Most children develop the motor skills and the desire to brush their teeth themselves around the age of six. It’s a good idea to let them do this as it will help them learn how to brush their teeth properly, but you should still watch to make sure they’re doing a good job and to ensure they spit out the toothpaste instead of swallowing it. Your child should use a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste to brush their teeth, so you may want to squeeze out this amount for them. You may also need to help your child floss for a few more years, but they should be able to do it on their own by 10 years old.

If your child has a hard time estimating how long they should be brushing their teeth, try letting them listen to a song. This adds a bit of fun to the routine and helps them know exactly how long they have been brushing their teeth. You can also try using a reward system, where your child gets a reward at the end of the week or month if they have done well keeping up with their oral hygiene. As your child ages and matures, you can phase this out and begin giving them more freedom and responsibility when it comes to their oral hygiene.

Ensure your child is getting enough fluoride.

Fluoride plays an important role in helping your child develop strong, healthy teeth and fight cavities, so it’s important to ensure your child is getting enough of it. Your child should brush their teeth with fluoridated toothpaste and you should determine whether or not your water supply is fluoridated. If it isn’t, your dentist may suggest a fluoride supplement. You can also look into fluoride treatments at the dentist, which help protect your child’s teeth against cavities and can be applied as a varnish for younger children or as a foam in a dental tray for slightly older children.

Protect your own oral health

Surprisingly, the bacteria that cause cavities can actually be spread from person to person. This means that when you share food or drinks with your child, you may be increasing their chances of getting cavities. The best way to combat this is by practicing what you preach—take care of your oral health as diligently as you want your child to take care of theirs! Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time, floss and use mouthwash at least once daily, and visit your dentist for an evaluation every six months.

Keep a close eye on the eruption of adult teeth

When your child’s first adult molars come in, you should visit an orthodontist for an evaluation. Orthodontists can keep an eye on the development of your child’s jaws and adult teeth and determine if and when they’ll need orthodontic treatment. The orthodontist may recommend early orthodontic treatment, but most children who need it receive braces or clear aligners around the age of 13, when all of their permanent teeth are in. As your child reaches their later teen years, their dentist will keep an eye on the development of their wisdom teeth to ensure they’re not impacted and to determine if they’ll need to be removed.

Limit sugary, acidic, and carbohydrate-rich snacks and drinks.

No matter how young or old they are, one way you can protect your child’s oral health is by limiting snacks and drinks that are sugary, acidic, or high in carbohydrates. These snacks are major factors in cavities, especially in children and teens who may not be brushing their teeth as well as they should. Instead, encourage your children to eat fruits and vegetables as snacks; these foods have vitamins and minerals that are important for every part of their development, including their teeth, and crunchy vegetables actually help to naturally clean teeth by scraping off plaque as your child chews. It’s also best to encourage your child to drink water between meals and snacks, as it fights cavities naturally by flushing debris and lowering the acidity level in their mouth.

Keeping your child’s baby teeth healthy is an important part of helping them to develop healthy adult teeth, but it also helps them to understand just how vital it is to keep their teeth and gums healthy. The habits that you help your child build from an early age will help their oral health thrive throughout their life—saving them more time, money, and pain than they may ever realize.