Tooth development in babies & toddlers
A baby’s primary teeth are as important to them as their permanent teeth. Baby or primary teeth help a young child to learn to chew and speak properly, and importantly, these teeth reserve the correct space in a child’s gums for the eruption of their permanent teeth when they are older.
Baby or primary teeth start to form in the jawbone before birth. A baby’s first primary tooth usually erupts at about six months of age but this can occur as early as birth or as late as the child’s first birthday. The average child has a full set of 20 primary teeth by the age of two to three years. The first visit to the dentist should be within six months of the eruption of the first tooth or by the child’s first birthday.
The appearance of the primary teeth is commonly called ‘teething’ and many babies experience discomfort during this period.
Most babies are irritable when new teeth break through their gums. Signs and symptoms of discomfort include:
- Frequent crying and crankiness
- A slight fever
- Reddened cheeks and drooling
- Appetite loss and upset stomach
- Sucking or gnawing on toys
- Pulling the ear on the same side as the erupting tooth
It is very important not to ignore symptoms such as fever and diarrhoea. If these symptoms appear, it is recommended that they are treated as unrelated symptoms to teething and medical advice should be sought to eliminate other causes.
To help relieve the discomfort of teething, you may:
- Washing your hands and then gently rubbing your baby’s gum with a clean finger
- Give your baby a teething ring or wet washcloth to bite. Teething rings can be chilled in the refrigerator before use to help manage gum swelling and pain. (Do not put teething rings in the freezer)
- Giving your baby non-sweetened rusks to chew on
Signs and symptoms may appear and disappear over several days. Ask your dentist or pharmacist for advice before using any pain reliever specifically created for babies and toddlers. Never give aspirin to a baby or young child.
Common Concerns: Thumb Sucking
Thumb sucking is a natural reflex in babies and young children. Most children lose interest in thumb sucking and dummies at two to four years.
Children who continue to suck their thumb or fingers after the permanent teeth have appeared risk developing crooked teeth, particularly if the sucking is forceful or frequent. Also, speech defects may arise, especially with the “s” and “th” sounds.
Gently encourage your child to give up thumb sucking. See your dentist for advice if your child cannot stop thumb sucking by the end of the first year at school. In rare cases, referral to a child psychologist may be helpful.
An important note about your oral health
For parents and primary carers of babies, it’s really important to ensure that you maintain your own oral health. Dental decay is actually a transmissible disease, meaning one person can transmit the bacteria responsible to another person.
Research has found that the overgrowth of bacteria, specifically Streptococcus mutans, that can cause dental decay in a parent’s mouth, can be transferred to the mouth of a newborn baby, making the child more susceptible to dental decay when teeth erupt.
To help minimise transferring bacteria from your mouth to your child’s mouth, do the following:
- Have a dental checkup before your baby is born
- Practise good oral hygiene before and after your baby is born
- Avoid sucking your baby’s spoon or bottle before offering it to them.
With a newborn it can be difficult to find time for yourself, however ensure that you:
- Brush your teeth twice a day
- Floss daily
- Drink fluoridated tap water
- Limit your intake of high sugar foods
- Make sure you have regular dental check ups
Last Published* April, 2023
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.