​​​​Good oral health is essential for our general health and wellbeing. Early childhood is the best time for children to learn habits which will last a life time and help them become healthy adults. Baby teeth are important for eating, talking and how children look. Baby teeth help shape the jaw and face and keep space for adult teeth to come through. 

Dental decay in young children

Dental decay in young children is a serious chronic disease that can start as soon as the first tooth comes through the gum. Dental decay starts as small white spots or lines that can slowly become larger, turning yellow or brown and leading to large holes. If decay is not treated it may lead to infection, pain and swelling and eventually to early tooth loss. Children with dental decay may have pain causing them to have trouble eating, sleeping, talking and concentrating. It can be a serious condition that often requires time in hospital.

Bacteria (germs) that cause dental decay can be passed from a mother/father or carer to a child’s mouth on dummies, bottles and spoons.  Utensils, such as spoons, should not be shared between a parent and child. It is very important to keep your own teeth and gums clean and healthy and to be a good role model for your child.

What can cause dental decay in young children?

  • frequently eating sugary foods like cups cakes, biscuits, lollies, chocolate, muesli bars and fruit straps
  • drinking sweet drinks like fruit juice, cordial and soft drinks
  • putting a baby to bed with a bottle
  • sucking or sipping on bottles or sippy cup all day with something sweet in it
  • not cleaning or brushing teeth.

How to keep mouth, teeth and gums healthy for infants and young children

Tooth brushing

  • Before your child starts getting teeth you can clean their gums using a clean, damp cloth.
  • 4-18 months: As soon as your child’s first teeth appear, clean them using a child-sized soft toothbrush, without toothpaste.
  • From 18 months of age, brush your child’s teeth twice a day with a small (smear) amount of fluoride toothpaste.
  • Children should spit out and not swallow the toothpaste.
  • Do not rinse their mouth with water after brushing, this will allow the fluoride from the toothpaste to better protect their teeth.
  • Help your child with brushing until they are eight years old.
  • Make tooth brushing fun - play a song, use a timer or tooth brushing app.
  • Children often go through stages of not wanting to brush. Establishing a routine will help them later in life.

Healthy eating

  • Only put breast milk or infant formula in feeding bottles and take the bottle away once your child has finished feeding.
  • Teach your baby to go to bed without a bottle.
  • Teach your baby to drink water from a cup starting at around 6 months of age.
  • Provide healthy snacks like cheese, vegetable sticks, fresh fruit, low fat yogurt.
  • Have treats like sweet snacks and drinks for special occasions only.

Drink water

  • Offer tap water as this is the best drink.
  • Tap water should be boiled and cooled for children until they are 12 months of age.

Dental check up

  • Check your child’s teeth at least once a month by lifting their lip and looking for any changes to their teeth.
  • Following the My Personal Health Record (Blue Book), have your child’s teeth checked at all child health appointments.
  • Children should have their first dental check-up by a dental practitioner by their first birthday.
  • Children should have a dental check-up before they start school.
  • Have regular dental check-ups. Your dental practitioner will be able to advise you on how often your child and family should visit.
  • All children (under 18 years of age) who are NSW residents are eligible for free public dental services in NSW.
  • The Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS) gives eligible children from 0–17 years of age access of up to $1,095 in benefits for oral health care over two calendar years.
  • Some Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Centres (ACCHS) provide dental care for their patients. Each ACCHS may have different eligibility criteria and appointment processes for their dental programs. Contact your local ACCHS for more information.


  • Baby teeth start to come through the gums at around six months of age. By three years a child has a full set of 20 baby teeth.
  • If your child is uncomfortable when teething, use a clean cold cloth, teething ring or other teething product. If there are other symptoms, consult your doctor or Child and Family Health Nurse.

Thumb /finger sucking and dummies

  • Thumb/finger sucking and using dummies by a baby is usually not a problem. It may be a concern if the habit is not broken prior to 4-5 years.
  • Do not dip dummies in anything sweet like honey, jam or condensed milk. This can cause dental decay.
  • Always clean your baby’s dummy with water. Dummies should not be cleaned in the parent or carer’s mouth.
  • Children should never share dummies.

Avoiding dental injuries

  • Provide a safe environment for your child, in the home and in the playground.
  • Adult supervision helps to prevent childhood injuries.
  • If an injury occurs, seek professional dental advice immediately.

Additional information and online training

Early Childhood Oral Health - eLearning training What Child Health Professionals need to know.

This course is suitable for medical and dental practitioners, nurses, midwives, Aboriginal health workers, allied health professionals and childcare workers. Four online learning modules have been developed to increase your confidence, knowledge and skills to help deliver better oral health outcomes for children.

Early Childhood Oral Health Guidelines provide support material for child health professionals about oral health.

Promoting Oral Health in Early Childhood supports child health professionals such as Child and Family Health Nurses, general practitioners, practice nurses and Aboriginal health workers to effectively perform their critical role in identifying, preventing and managing early childhood caries.

Current as at: Monday 15 April 2024