A Parent's Guide to Teaching Kids How to Brush Their Teeth

Your child doesn't have to be among the 42 percent of kids aged two through 11 years old with tooth decay, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. In fact, by learning where to begin when teaching kids to brush their teeth and building good dental hygiene habits, you can help your kids be among the 80 percent of kids who don't have untreated decayed teeth.

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Why It's Important for Kids to Get Started Early Caring for Their Teeth

Starting good oral care when your child is at an early age is essential for the long-term health of their teeth. As a parent, you can teach your child how to brush and floss just by taking some key steps.  

Why Brushing Baby Teeth Is Important

A healthy smile early on leads to a healthier smile later. Since baby teeth are going to fall out anyway, you may think there’s no need to worry about a little cavity or two. But whether a cavity develops in baby teeth, adolescent teeth or adult teeth, they are expensive and painful to fill.

Cavities in baby teeth also can have long-term effects on the oral health and well-being of your child. Think of baby teeth as "space-holders" for future adult teeth to come in. If your little one has unhealthy baby teeth, it could lead the way to unhealthy adult teeth as well.

To avoid your child's adult teeth growing in crooked and out of alignment, you have to ensure they have a well-cared-for tooth growth site and gums. Your child’s first adult teeth, particularly their molars, can impact your child's face shape along with the future position and health of their other adult teeth.

And you know what having crooked teeth means — braces. While many parents end up bringing their child to the orthodontist's office at some point, by keeping your kid's gums and teeth healthy early on, you can help avoid the hassle, pain and cost of braces.

How Brushing Prevents Cavities and Infections

Early childhood dental caries, or tooth decay, is a common childhood infectious disease that may become chronic. You should begin healthy oral hygiene habits early in your child's life since your child can develop tooth decay as soon as their first tooth.

When acid-producing bacteria infect your baby's mouth, your child may develop tooth decay. You can also pass along these bacteria through your saliva to your baby. For example, sharing saliva on cups or spoons, cleaning your baby's pacifier with your mouth or testing foods before you feed them to your baby can all spread these bacteria.

To keep your child's gums and teeth free of tooth decay, give them water more often during the day — instead of other sugary liquids. For example, some foods and drinks have added or natural sugars in them, changing the acid in the mouth by bacteria. This acid then begins dissolving the outer part of your child’s teeth and causes them to decay. Water, on the other hand, doesn't contain these sugars and therefore doesn't cause decay.

A common way bacteria and acid occur in your child's mouth is when you put them to bed with:

  • Milk
  • A formula bottle
  • Juice
  • Sugar water
  • Soda or other soft drinks
  • Sugary drinks

This may also happen when you allow your child to drink these types of drinks throughout the day from a bottle or sippy cup instead of water.

You can consider only serving milk with meals and not exclusively for nap time, bedtime or throughout the day. If you breastfeed, you should still follow good oral hygiene, employ preventive dental care and eat a healthy diet despite knowing breastfeeding by itself doesn't cause tooth decay.

Knowing tooth decay signs in your baby is important too. If your baby has tooth decay, they may first have white spots on their upper front teeth along their gum line. You might not know about these spots unless your child’s dentist spots it using the right dental equipment.

Tips to Teach Your Child How to Brush Their Teeth

To stop the spread of tooth decay and prevent any further damage, your child should be seen by a dentist and treated early. So, are you asking yourself, "How do I teach my kids to brush their teeth?"

Here are some examples of the teeth-brushing steps you should take:

  • Hold the toothbrush against the gum line and gently at a 45-degree angle.
  • Brush each tooth each brushing session.
  • Start at the tooth's base and brush to the chewing surface.
  • Brush the chewing surfaces using short, sweeping motions.
  • Brush the roof of your child's mouth and tongue from back to front.

In a study with kids aged six months to five years, the main oral health tasks for the kids involved using fluoride dentifrice — powder or paste to clean teeth — and tooth brushing. The fluoridated dentifrice is an essential factor in reducing the caries lesion rates in kids. By the end of the study, by the time the children turned two years old, they were brushing consistently with the dentifrice. Their mothers were their most significant influence.

Tips to Teach Your Kids How to Floss Their Teeth

You’ll want to begin teaching kids to floss when their tooth surfaces get close to each other. They should floss a minimum of once a day to prevent food and bacterial plaque from settling between their teeth, potentially leading to tooth decay, gum disease and halitosis or bad breath. You'll probably want to help your child floss at first since their gums are a little more sensitive to flossing. So, your next question may be, "How do I teach my kids to floss?"

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How to Floss

The steps for flossing are:

  1. Take a short string of floss and twirl each end around a finger to get control. When flossing between your child's teeth, be sure you don't apply too much pressure.
  2. Arrange the floss around each tooth so it's a "C" shaped curve and gently slide the floss up and down under your child's gum line and along the side of each tooth.
  3. Use a new section of the string of floss for each tooth so you don't reinsert the plaque and food.

You can also use a small brush known as an interdental brush to clean in between teeth surfaces with space.

You should begin practicing good dental hygiene habits with your child at home even before their first tooth comes in. But even before your baby's toothy grin appears, you'll want to keep their gums clean. Using a soft gauze or cloth and water, wipe their gums gently. Another option is to brush their gums after each feeding with a moist, baby-sized toothbrush. There's no need for toothpaste since they don't have teeth yet. On top of cleaning your baby's gums, you'll also help soothe their teething pain with the light rubbing pressure.

Where to Start?

So, where do you start when you're getting your child involved with their healthy teeth brushing routine? Let's start with the toothbrush.

Choosing Your Child's First Toothbrush

Choosing the proper toothbrush is an important first step when you're starting your child on a good dental hygiene routine. The toothbrush should be child-sized and have soft bristles. Its handle should fit in your child's hand comfortably.

To get your child excited about brushing their teeth, let them pick their own toothbrush.  Consider a variety of fun themes for their toothbrush to motivate them to practice brushing. For example, your child may get excited about using a toothbrush with their favorite cartoon or Disney character on it such as:

  • Mickey Mouse
  • Lightening McQueen
  • Elmo
  • Superman
  • My Little Pony

You get the idea. Match their themed toothbrush with themed toothpaste too in delicious fun flavors to motivate them even more. Nothing beats brushing your teeth with a Lightening McQueen toothbrush and berry-flavored toothpaste.

You'll even find other fun toothbrushes with different things like cool-colored toothbrushes, sing-along brushes or brushes that light up — each aimed at making your child's brushing experience a fun activity.

Remember, you should change your child's toothbrush several times a year. But this can be a fun experience too, since they can choose another fun theme.

What Types of Toothpaste Should Your Child Use?

Since there are so many different flavors of toothpaste, it shouldn't be difficult to find a flavor your child likes. When they're young, your child may end up swallowing the toothpaste. You can try to teach them how to rinse and spit, but they may be too young for this. Therefore, use fluoride-free toothpaste when they're at a very young age.

Choose Child-Friendly Toothpaste

There are "training toothpastes" you can use if your child is under the age of three. Training toothpaste is fluoride-free, so it’s safe if they happen to swallow a little.

Again, you'll find a variety of kid-friendly toothpastes available in a vast assortment of flavors and colors. Instead of trying to force your child to brush their teeth with cinnamon or mint-flavored adult toothpaste that can make their little mouths burn temporarily and can be harsh for their palette, have them pick out their favorite kids’ flavor. When they know they have a tasty flavor of toothpaste to look forward to, they'll be more inclined to stick with their tooth-brushing routine.

For example, you can get children's toothpastes in flavors such as:

  • Bubble Gum
  • Strawberry
  • Cupcake
  • Watermelon

There's even Disney Pixar Cars Fruit Burst flavor toothpaste.

So, the next time you go shopping for toothpaste, bring your child along with you and give them a choice of which flavor and color/theme they would like to use.

How much toothpaste should your child use? Commercials and advertisements for toothpaste usually show a person squeezing a long strip of the paste on their toothbrush. For kids, especially young kids, this is too much toothpaste.

If your child is under three years old, The American Dental Association (ADA) suggests you use a "smear" of fluoride toothpaste and brush their teeth once in the morning and once at night. This smear shouldn't be any bigger than a grain of rice. If your child is older than three years old, you can apply a pea-sized amount on their toothbrush.

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Talking to Your Dentist About Recommendations

You don't necessarily have to teach your child to properly brush their teeth all on your own. Go to your child's dentist and ask them, "How do I teach my kids about dental health?" They'll be more than happy to give you recommendations for just about all aspects of teeth brushing, including choosing the right toothbrush, teeth brushing tips to motivate your little one, types of toothpaste and even how often you should visit their office.

A word on dental visits: Like yourself, your child should see the dentist every six months to get a checkup and have their teeth cleaned. Start taking your child to the dentist early so they'll get used to the dentist, the friendly staff and the big chair that comes with odd sounds and lights.

Your child's first visit will likely be just a time to get to know the dental office. They'll probably get their exam and cleaning on their second visit. Dentists and staff often offer children special treats to make their visit fun. These treats may include:

  • Stickers
  • Balloons
  • Erasers
  • Pencils
  • Toys
  • Special toothbrush and floss items

The dental staff and dentist will also help teach your child how to brush their teeth. They'll take the time to show your child the correct way to brush their teeth and floss.

Children often are more motivated when they get their instructions from an authoritative source. The practice and repetition combined with this motivation will keep your child's teeth healthy for years.

Along with proper brushing and flossing instructions, the dentist will most likely talk with you about specific dentistry services your child may need in the future, such as braces.

How to Grow Healthy Teeth-Cleaning Habits in Your Children

If you've been consistently brushing your kid's teeth twice a day, you've already started the process of teaching them how to brush their teeth. Having them watch you brush your teeth and explaining to them everything you're doing will help, too.

But, motivating your child to brush their teeth isn't necessarily going to be easy. It can take time for them to learn how to take care of their teeth and other dental hygiene needs and quite frankly, it's not always naturally fun for kids. However, this doesn't mean they don't have to learn because learning, practicing and understanding the importance of teeth brushing and flossing should start at a young age.

You need to stick with a regular oral hygiene routine even if it's hard to achieve because poor oral hygiene can be detrimental to overall health. If your child is finding it hard to learn or practice appropriate dental hygiene skills, the tips below may help.

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First and foremost — make it fun. Here are some examples of what you can do to put a little fun in your child's teeth brushing experience.

Let Your Kids Practice on You

Although you may find this a bit uncomfortable, it works. If you're having difficulty getting your child to let you brush their teeth, have them practice on your teeth. This will get them used to holding the toothbrush and ensuring each tooth is clean. Make the experience fun for them — have them pretend they're the dentist.

An alternative is to let your younger kids practice with their favorite stuffed animal or doll. While they're brushing their doll's teeth, you can go over the basics with them and explain how to brush their doll's teeth properly.

Set a Timer

Dentists typically suggest you brush your teeth for a minimum of 120 seconds. Therefore, you can set a timer for two minutes to teach your child the correct amount of time needed to clean their teeth thoroughly. You can also turn the timer into a game. If you have more than one child, you can have them "race" each other to get all their teeth clean before the timer runs out.

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Make It a Four-Minute Event

Don't just set a timer and watch your children brush. Instead, make each 120-second session twice a day an event. Turn their favorite song up and turn it into a two-minute dance event. Brushing apps and videos also help — for example, try the Toothsavers Brushing Game app. Or, using your best voice, read them a two-minute story while they brush. No matter what you do for your four-minute event, get creative and make it fun for them.

Fighting the Plaque Monsters

Explain to your child how plaque formation can lead to cavities and gum disease, so they need to break out their toothbrush to get rid of the "Plaque Monsters," which are the bad guys. Try to come up with a fun way of teaching them about plaque.

Instead of explaining the doom and gloom of plaque, tell your kids something like bacteria likes to run around on their teeth every time they eat, and these bacteria can hurt their teeth. But, if they use their toothbrush to brush the plaque monsters away, they are a superhero who is saving their teeth.

While the plaque monster may work for some kids, it may not for yours. So, come up with your own little superhero story where your child can fight plaque and save their teeth with their toothbrush. You'll also want to explain how flossing is important because the plaque monsters also like to hide in between their teeth, the back of their tongue and other hard-to-get-to areas. Floss can also be a weapon the superhero uses to combat the plague monsters.

Create Motivational Rewards Charts

Create a motivational reward chart for your child to keep track of their teeth brushing each day. You can go online and find some premade reward charts or get creative and make your own. The important thing is the chart helps your child keep track of their oral hygiene tasks and stay consistent with it.

So, what have we learned?

Teeth Your Child How to Brush Their Teeth Correctly

Let's recap. Help your child create and stick to a lifelong oral hygiene routine by being consistent with the following tasks:

  • Brush their teeth twice daily for two minutes each session.
  • Floss a minimum of one time each day.
  • Get a new toothbrush for your child every three months.
  • Book regular dental visits.
  • Explain and ingrain the importance of healthy gums and teeth.

You've learned the importance of starting early when teaching children about dental health and that even baby teeth need to be taken care of properly. Brushing your kid's teeth properly helps prevent cavities and infection. Just as important as brushing is flossing. And by making the process fun, you can instill positive oral hygiene in your children early in life sets them up for healthy teeth as adults.

For more information on caring for your child's teeth, you can visit our kids' dentistry page here at Nirvana Dental. Dr. Prachi Vartikar and the entire dental staff truly care about your child’s oral health. Book your appointment online for your child's dental check-up through our booking portal today.