Recent research has highlighted the importance of good dental health over the course of a lifetime. Gum disease and poor gum health can raise your risk for heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s important to brush, floss and see a dentist regularly. If you’re a parent, you should encourage these practices when your child is still an infant.

Infant teeth typically erupt at six months, but it can be earlier, so it’s important for parents to be informed about how to care for their babies’ teeth. Because cavities can occur in children as early as nine months, and because dental health directly impacts overall health, early dental care is important.

Here are six tips for caring for your baby’s teeth, based on the latest American Dental Association (ADA) guidelines:

Start regularly cleaning your baby’s mouth a few days after birth.
Begin gently wiping your newborn’s mouth with clean, damp gauze or a damp washcloth when your baby is just a few days old. This will keep your baby’s mouth clean, prevent gum disease or future tooth decay and get you in the habit of cleaning your child’s teeth daily.

Don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle.
Letting your child suck on a bottle before bedtime can introduce cavities; as the formula or milk pools in the baby’s mouth, the sugars go to work on her teeth. If your child nurses or drinks from a bottle before falling asleep, gently wipe her gums and teeth once she’s done eating and is falling asleep.

As soon as the first tooth appears, start brushing using fluoride toothpaste.
Smear a dab of fluoride toothpaste (the size of a grain of rice) on a soft-bristled toothbrush and gently brush your baby’s teeth twice a day. If you make brushing an enjoyable routine, it will be easier to encourage your child to keep it up when he’s older.

Supervise brushing.
When your child is a toddler, make it clear that Mom and Dad need to handle the serious brushing and keep her involved in the process. Once your child is able to brush effectively, let her take charge, but supervise the process to make sure she’s doing a thorough job. Teach your child to spit out the toothpaste and rinse her mouth with water after brushing.

Introduce flossing as soon as two teeth touch.
Once a child has two teeth that touch, it’s time to start flossing. Experiment with different types of dental floss to see what your child likes. Sometimes, just watching Mom or Dad floss is enough to make a child want to floss, too. Our family dentist gives out a toothbrush and dental floss at each visit, plus a special treat: “Mr. Flossman,” a plastic man around whom a child can wrap dental floss. Mr. Flossman then goes “skiing” on the child’s teeth, making flossing an entertaining activity.

Making brushing and flossing a positive daily routine keeps kids from resisting it as they get older, and teaching them do it on their own is a great way for them to practice independence.

Visit the dentist by 12 months.
The ADA recommends that parents schedule their child’s first dental visit after the first teeth appear. Make an appointment with a family dentist or pediatric dentist within six months of the appearance of your baby’s first tooth and no later than your child’s first birthday. If you don’t have your own family dentist, ask your child’s pediatrician for recommendations.

Make the visit a positive experience for your child by keeping your attitude, voice and body language upbeat and relaxed. Talk about what the visit will involve before you go, and make the appointment for a time when your child will be well rested. The dentist will clean your child’s teeth, evaluate her oral health and then talk with you about dental care. Some dentists will even paint a fluoride treatment onto your child’s teeth.

Since infants and young children can develop serious problems requiring root canals and extractions, it’s hard to overstate the importance of routine dental hygiene and regular dentist visits. Teaching children healthy dental habits early makes it a routine part of their lives, contributes to their overall health and helps them develop confidence and independence.