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Teaching Children to Brush Their Teeth

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of children have at least one tooth with untreated decay at any given time, and 40 percent will have their first cavities before age five. This might not seem so alarming—they will lose those teeth anyway, after all. However, there are many reasons to care about your child’s healthy mouth. With ties to overall medical wellness, oral hygiene is important at any age, regardless of whether the teeth are temporary or permanent.

Why It Is Important to Brush Children’s Teeth

Untreated cavities can cause infections even in young children that can lead to problems with eating and speaking. They also can cause your child to experience discomfort or pain that she might be too young to tell you about. As soon as her first tooth erupts, she is susceptible to decay.

Children who have poor oral health miss more school and receive lower grades on average compared to kids with good dental habits. They also are more likely to suffer from poor concentration and can have a variety of social issues, with bad breath being the most common.

According to the American Dental Association, primary teeth are critical space holders for the permanent teeth that will come in later, so losing them prematurely can cause overcrowding and other problems. A healthy mouth is necessary for the adult teeth to grow correctly. Your child’s first adult teeth, particularly their molars, can impact the face shape along with future tooth alignment.

And while the teeth may be temporary, the gums are not. Many experts believe that the bacteria that occurs with gum disease may move into the bloodstream, which can negatively affect heart health.

It also is easier to ensure that an oral care routine will extend to older children and teens when you establish it from an early age. Most teens and adults with excellent dental habits developed them in childhood.

When to Start Brushing Your Child’s Teeth

It is never too early to begin an oral hygiene routine with your child. Even before the first tooth arrives, you can acclimate her to the process by wiping the gums with clean, wet gauze or washcloth after each feeding to reduce the buildup of sugars that grow bacteria. As soon as your child’s first tooth erupts, start brushing it twice a day with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush. Acclimating your child to a toothbrush when they are young reduces the chance that she will become averse to it later.

When your child reaches age three, she will likely be ready to begin learning to brush on their own. However, you will need to supervise and assist with brushing because she will still lack the necessary motor skills to do an excellent job.

Teaching Brushing Technique

Before brushing lessons can begin, it is vital to select a suitable toothbrush. A small-headed, soft-bristled brush is best for children, as stiff bristles are often abrasive on their sensitive gums. Replace the toothbrush every three to four months or when it looks frayed or worn.

The first step in teaching children to brush their teeth is to show them how much toothpaste to use. Children younger than three only need an amount about the size of a grain of rice. A pea-sized quantity is suitable for children three and older. Teach your children that they should not swallow toothpaste. However, if they do, that small amount will not harm them.

Second, demonstrate the proper angle for holding the toothbrush, which should be about 45 degrees. The toothbrush should face the gums of the upper or lower teeth.

Third, instruct them to make small back and forth motions with the toothbrush over the interior, exterior, and chewing surfaces of the teeth, starting from the base and moving upward. They will need to apply some pressure as they do this, but it should not be too much. Gum discomfort or bleeding is a clear indicator of excessive force.

Next, place the toothbrush in the vertical position to brush the front teeth. Make sure to clean the front and back of each.

Finally, teach them to gently brush the tongue to remove bacteria from the surface, spit the excess toothpaste into the sink, and rinse their mouths with water. The process from beginning to end should last at least two minutes to ensure sufficient cleaning. It’s a good idea to use a timer so that you know you hit the mark.

Encouraging Kids to Brush

Many children find brushing to be a boring activity and tend to avoid it if possible. That’s why it is important to monitor your child’s brushing routines until you are sure she is old enough to be responsible for their own dental hygiene.

Your child is more likely to pick up on good habits when you schedule them. Having your child brush their teeth at the same times every day (e.g., upon waking up and before bed) will cement the habit faster.

Young children enjoy copying their parents’ actions, so you might consider making brushing time a family activity. Moreover, your child will benefit from watching you brush with proper technique. You can make the experience more enjoyable by playing music or dancing while you brush and by selecting a fun-themed toothbrush and kid-friendly toothpaste with sweet and fruity flavor. 

Consider offering your child a reward for excellent brushing habits. Sticker charts work well for many children, offering them the opportunity to earn a sticker twice a day after brushing and placing them on the chart. Other rewards for successful brushing might include earning “points” toward a new favorite toy or some money in the piggy bank.

Things to Avoid When Teaching Your Child to Brush

In most cases, making teeth brushing a fun, family event with lots of praise and rewards will get even reluctant children engaged in the process. However, some children always hate brushing their teeth and, despite all your efforts, still struggle.

If your child is obstinate about tooth brushing, don’t assume that she is being confrontational or lazy. Visit your dentist to rule out any underlying issues that might be causing discomfort. The last thing you want is to ignore a problem that is causing your child pain and force her to brush despite it.

Another option is to see if the bathroom is triggering a stubborn reaction. Try brushing in different locations around the house, or ask your child where she would prefer to brush.

Create distractions while brushing that will allow your child to focus on something other than their teeth. Giving her a toy to look at or even telling a story can help pass the time—two minutes can seem like quite a long time for a young child.

Contact us today to schedule a free consultation with one of our board-certified orthodontists.

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