father brushing his toddler's teeth

Yes, you do brush baby teeth

They may be small, but baby teeth are teeth too, and they need care.  

Most children do not have the dexterity to brush properly until about age 6 years. And none of them know why it’s important for good health. Help them, teach them, and show them how you brush your own teeth.  

Pediatric dentist Richard Yoon, DDS, answers questions parents and kids ask him about baby teeth.

What exactly are baby teeth? 

Baby teeth, also known as primary or deciduous teeth, are a person’s first set of teeth. They start to come in around age 6 months 

Baby teeth are typically smaller in size and have thinner enamel than adult teeth, which makes them more susceptible to cavity formation. There are 20 baby teeth in total: 10 top and 10 bottom teeth. 

Baby teeth are important because they help children chew and speak. They also hold the proper space in the jaw for permanent teeth.   

When do you start brushing baby teeth?  

Start to brush baby teeth as soon as they come into the mouth.  

Brush with the child, then brush for the child. Children will enjoy brushing if they see you doing it as part of the nighttime routine. Practice good oral health behaviors and children will want to do the same.  

It’s also a good idea to use a flosser as soon as children have two teeth that touch each other, as these surfaces are hard to reach with a toothbrush alone. Until then, space between baby teeth is good and allows saliva to wash out food substances.   

How to brush baby teeth  

Parents and caregivers, this is your job. Don’t rely on the child to do the work. Do let them hold a toothbrush, with supervision, as soon as they show interest, to encourage that interest and comfort level.   

Toddlers typically suck or chew on the soft nylon end. By age 8 a child should be able to brush sufficiently without help. You know your child: Would you let them brush your teeth? Help them when the answer is still no. 

Why bother keeping baby teeth clean? 

Brushing removes bacteria and plaque from tooth surfaces. Otherwise, cavities and other problems can occur, even in young children. Taking good care of baby teeth also helps ensure healthy permanent teeth. 

What can happen with permanent teeth if baby teeth have lots of cavities?  

Tooth pain, infection, inability to chew, lost confidence, permanent malformed adult teeth.

Why don’t we immediately have adult teeth? 

We do immediately have adult teeth! In fact, almost all teeth (baby and adult) are in some form of development at birth nestled in the gumpads.  

We don’t immediately have adult teeth visible and present because our jaws are not big enough to fit them all at once. Baby teeth hold space in the jaw for the permanent teeth and make room for them to come in properly.   

What happens when we transition from baby teeth to adult teeth? 

Permanent adult teeth push baby teeth out.  

When a child is about age 6, the first permanent teeth (called the six-year molars) begin to come in at the back of the mouth. These molars are followed by the rest of the permanent teeth, which replace baby teeth over the next few years.  

This process continues until about age 13. Children may experience soreness, discomfort, or irritation and have trouble biting and chewing. Gums may appear sore (red), swollen, or inflamed.  Consequently, it is important to take care of the mouth during this time by brushing and flossing to reduce inflammation and stay healthy.   

The last teeth to come in the third molars, which are often removed in the late teens or early 20s. Those who have space for third molars have 32 adult teeth. 

Child's mouth with second row of teeth. Baby Milk and permanent adult teeth together

What to do with two rows of teeth

Sometimes permanent teeth are larger than baby teeth and do not have enough room to come in properly. If a child has two rows of teeth, consult a dentist. A baby tooth may need to be removed to make room. In the meantime, keep brushing and flossing your child’s teeth as usual. 

How to know if a child will need braces 

The need for braces varies. Children should have an orthodontic evaluation around age 6, and before age 7, to assess dental development and determine if early treatment is needed. When children are under age 5, it’s usually too early to determine. 

What do kids ask about their teeth? 

When will I lose my first tooth?  

Children see classmates and peers losing teeth, and often teachers have tooth inventories or tooth charts. It is important to take the time to listen to children, answer questions, and encourage them to be patient. Their time, and the tooth fairy, will come.  


Richard Yoon, DDS, is associate professor of dental medicine and program director of postdoctoral residency training in pediatric dentistry at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine; and a pediatric dentist at ColumbiaDoctors.