Failure to look after teeth right from the time they first appear in babies can lead to problems, even with permanent teeth years later, according to Dietmar Oesterreich of the German Dentists' Chamber in Berlin.
''Parents should start brushing teeth when the first milk tooth breaks through,'' the dentistry professor told dpa, pointing to a report showing that small children are too rarely taken to the dentist, with the result that almost 5 per cent of fillings in Germany are done to milk teeth.
The first tooth usually emerges at around six months, and from this point onwards parents should brush with a smidgen of fluoridated children's toothpaste once a day up to the age of two. Adult toothpaste is stronger and thus unsuitable for children up to the age of six.
Once the child is two, brushing with a little suitable toothpaste should be carried out twice a day. ''Fluoride is active primarily against caries on the surface of the teeth,'' Oesterreich says.
Poor diet with too many sweet or acid drinks, along with poor dental care frequently results in so-called ''baby bottle tooth decay'' in children up to the age of three, Oesterreich says. With this condition it is mainly the front teeth at the top that are affected by caries.
The symptoms may range from pain and swelling to abscesses and complete loss of the affected tooth. In this case it often happens that the permanent teeth are also affected by tooth decay. ''The enamel on permanent teeth is particularly sensitive to bacterial attack during the breaking-through phase. It is still hardening,'' the professor says.
Caries bacteria, which multiply particularly rapidly in the human mouth in the first years of life, are thus easily able to attack the new teeth, according to Oesterreich. The professor said that healthy milk teeth also serve to pave the way for permanent teeth and are essential for good speech development.
By NINA C ZIMMERMANN