Teeth and gum care factsheet


Looking after your teeth and gums is an important but sometimes overlooked part of health. Healthy teeth and gums help your child to talk and eat well. They can also help give your child good self-confidence and keep them smiling. Having healthy teeth and gums means that you have good oral health.

Tooth decay and gum disease are common in children for reasons including:

  • the enamel on baby teeth being softer and thinner
  • the habit of caring for teeth being challenging to introduce and keep going
  • higher levels of sugar in some children’s diets.

Tooth decay and gum disease can be very painful for children and can cause them to have issues with eating, speaking, and doing their everyday activities. It is important to help your child learn how to care for their teeth and gums to have good oral health and avoid any pain, infection, or other health issues as they grow up.

Things to consider

Tooth decay and gum disease

Tooth decay is when sugars from food and drink turn into a sticky acid film called plaque. Plaque sticks to the teeth and dissolves the protective enamel. Plaque can build up on teeth and cause a chalky white look before causing holes to form. Holes in the teeth can be painful and lead to infection of the inside roots and nerves.

Gums are the pink flesh that surrounds teeth and keep them in place. Gum disease is usually caused by a build-up of bacteria, which causes redness, swelling, pain, and bleeding. Gum disease can cause your child’s teeth to become loose and lead to infection.

Gum disease can start as gingivitis, which is when plaque builds up around the gums. When Gingivitis is not treated, it can develop into periodontitis. Periodontitis is when the joint between the tooth and gum becomes weak and infected with bacteria.

Tooth decay and gum disease can easily be prevented by brushing the teeth, having regular checkups at the dentist, and lowering the amount of sugary food and drink in your child’s diet.

Common signs of tooth decay and gum disease include:

  • your child refusing to eat or drink because of pain
  • bleeding around your child’s gums
  • visible holes or discolouration of your child’s teeth.

If your child shows signs of tooth decay or gum disease, make an appointment to see your local dentist as soon as possible.

Preventing tooth decay and gum disease

The best way to prevent tooth decay and gum disease is to ensure your child is brushing their teeth for 2 minutes twice daily.

Other tips include:

  • not putting your baby or toddler to sleep with a bottle in their mouth
  • not putting honey or other foods on your child’s dummy
  • drinking tap water that contains fluoride, available in most council areas
  • lowering the amount of sugary, sticky foods and sweet drinks and juices between meals
  • encouraging your child to chew when they eat
  • rinsing with water, mouthwash or water mixed with toothpaste when no toothbrush is available.

Cleaning your child’s teeth

Cleaning teeth properly is a skill that children need to learn early, even before their teeth grow.

It can be difficult for children to get used to new sensations, especially in the mouth. Helping your child to get used to the feel of brushing their teeth early can help them keep up the good health habits.

Start cleaning teeth with your baby by:

  • giving them a small, soft toothbrush to play with during bath time or a nappy change
  • helping them to put the bristles in their mouth, and give lots of positive encouragement when they keep it in and move it around
  • using a small, soft brush or finger brush and water to gently clean baby teeth as soon as they start to show.

When your baby is one year old, you can start to:

  • introduce small amounts of non-fluoride or “baby” toothpaste to the brush to get them used to the texture and flavour
  • start to clean teeth twice a day, morning and night
  • start to include teeth cleaning into their nighttime routine, usually as the last step before bed.

As your baby grows into a toddler, they will want more control over cleaning their teeth and using the brush. They might also resist more and find it difficult. Children under 10 years old will have difficulty managing teeth cleaning on their own, so it is important to give them help and try to make it as positive as possible.

Children should try to brush their teeth for 2 minutes twice a day.

Remember that any attempt at brushing their teeth is better than no attempt. If your child brushes their teeth very quickly or becomes upset, you should stop and try again later.

Strategies for making teeth cleaning more enjoyable include:

  • buying different flavours of toothpaste to try
  • letting your child pick a special toothbrush with their favourite cartoon or colour on it
  • setting up a special area on the bathroom counter with your child’s toothpaste, brush, and a cup for rinsing
  • using a rewards chart
  • using free apps or videos to help encourage your child to brush for 2 minutes, for example:

When your child is between the ages of 2 and 6, their teeth will start to move closer together. This is when you should begin to introduce dental floss to make sure there is no food trapped between their teeth.

Mouthwash is not recommended for children under 6 years old. Speak to your dentist if you have questions about your child and mouthwash.

Visiting the dentist

Your child should start visiting the dentist from their first birthday onwards.

The dentist is sometimes shown as a scary place in films and television shows, so it’s important to get your child used to the dentist as a positive and friendly place.

You can try:

  • bringing your child along to your dentist appointments
  • using medical play by asking the dentist whether there is a cup, toothbrush, or other safe equipment your child can play with
  • organising an appointment for your child to come in to meet the dentist and get used to the space before they have their teeth checked
  • rewarding your child after the dentist appointment with something that is not food or drink, like a new toothbrush or a sticker.

All children under 18 eligible for Medicare can access public dental services in NSW. Some children may also be eligible for the Commonwealth’s Child Dental Benefits Schedule.

For more information, visit Child Dental Benefits Schedule.

Last updated Friday 17th May 2024


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024