Before your baby’s first trip to the dentist, erase all of your own negative associations. Dr. Michael King (known to his patients as “Dr. Mike”), is based in Manhattan and is just one of a growing number of pediatric dentists who are redefining the practice. We chatted with Dr. Mike to get the scoop on the basics (and not-so-basics) of caring for those precious baby teeth.

First thing’s first — is by their first birthday really the right time to bring a baby for their first dental appointment?

It is. It’s about establishing a “dental home,” and knowing where to go if an issue arises. This is the time that the dentist can identify any potential problems, but just as importantly, it’s a time for the parent to start a relationship with the child’s dentist and to get the baby comfortable with the idea.

As those first teeth come in — even before the first appointment—should we do anything at home to care for them?

You can wipe your baby’s new teeth and gums with gauze or a washcloth — it can be dry or dampened, as long as it creates some gentle abrasion. This is especially important before bedtime to get the residue from milk and food off.

Then when should they graduate to a toothbrush?

Once they can grasp it, there are plenty of toothbrushes out there with wide handles so that your toddler can’t choke on it. You want the child to get comfortable with the idea of the toothbrush, but don’t let them have total control. Even if it’s just for 30 seconds before bed, the parent still needs to really scrub to get all of that food off.

And how about using toothpaste?

Water’s really OK in the beginning, it’s that brushing that’s important. But if you want to use toothpaste, definitely start out with a non-fluoride option, and just use a pea-sized amount — you always read that, but with the little guys it really is important to just use a tiny bit. They can move onto regular toothpaste once they’re really spitting regularly and rinsing afterwards. That usually happens around age 3 at the earliest.

What should we look for when choosing a toothpaste?

As long as it’s approved by the ADA, it’s fine, they all have essentially the same makeup. Avoid those with artificial sweeteners. And remember that the goal is to work up to having them be able to use the fluoride toothpaste—it really makes a difference in cavity reduction.

Is regular tap water OK for cleaning/brushing baby’s teeth?

It should be. That’s what I use. But if there’s concern about the water supply where you live, you can use bottled water with fluoride — Poland Spring is good.

And what else should we be doing between visits to promote good oral hygiene?

Good nutrition is really important. Limit the sugar content — don’t give them anything with more than 10 grams. And once they have most or all of their teeth have come in, flossing’s important, too. Even if you can’t get the whole mouth, try to get between the bottom two molars at least a couple of times a week. That’s where most of the chewing happens.

Anything else?

One more thing — as babies start on solids, parents often share bites of food with them. So now you’re taking the bacteria from your adult mouth, and transferring it by fork or spoon to what’s really a pretty clean infant mouth. There have been a lot of studies on the benefits of Xylitol gum, which prevents cavities and cuts down on bacteria. It’s rare for a dentist to recommend chewing gum, but in this case, it can really be beneficial for mom or dad.