Babies and toddlers are just as much at risk of dental decay as an older child or adult. Caring for your baby’s teeth begins at birth. With good oral hygiene habits early, as your child grows and develops, they will be well equipped to have healthy teeth for life.
Tips for caring for your baby’s first teeth
How to brush your baby’s teeth
Even before your baby’s teeth appear it is recommended that you gently wipe their gums with a moistened soft cloth once a day. During bath-time is a good opportunity.
Once the baby or primary teeth start to appear, it is recommended that parents use a baby’s toothbrush with a small head and soft, rounded bristles. Up to the age of 18 months, teeth should be brushed with plain water, once a day after the last feed in the evening.
There are special low-fluoride toothpastes that have been developed for young children and these can be introduced from around the age of 18 months, however always read the directions on toothpaste for age suitability. Use only a pea-sized smear of toothpaste and teach your child to spit out the toothpaste after brushing.
Store all toothpastes out of your child’s reach. Some small children love the taste of toothpaste and will eat it if given the chance.
How to teach your child to brush their teeth
From around the age of 4 to 5 children should begin to learn how to brush their own teeth. Children do not have the manual skills to effectively clean their own teeth until around 8 or 9 years of age. Until then, tooth brushing should be a combined effort by parents and children.
Choose a position where you can easily see your child’s mouth – for example, sit your child on your lap or stand behind your child with their head tilted back slightly.
Move the toothbrush gently in small circles to clean the front surfaces of your child’s teeth. To reach inner surfaces, tilt the toothbrush. Avoid side-to-side scrubbing, which can damage teeth and gums. Brush the biting and grinding surfaces of back teeth with a firm back and forth motion. Clean every surface of every tooth. Brush gently around the gum line of each tooth. In total you should aim to brush for about 2 minutes, although it will take time for your child to allow you to clean for that length of time.
Replace toothbrushes every 3 months or when bristles appear frayed. Frayed bristles are not effective at removing plaque and may scratch your child’s gums. It is a good idea for your child to use one toothbrush while you retain another one with non-frayed bristles to massage the gums without scratching.
Did you know?
Plaque-disclosing tablets or drops (available from your dentist or pharmacist) contain food dye that turns plaque pink or red. These can help you and your child to see if the brushing technique you are using removes plaque from every tooth surface.
When your child is about 2 and a half years old, flossing can be done a minimum of twice weekly in areas where the teeth are touching. Flossing helps remove decay-causing bacteria from between their teeth and keeps their gums healthy. Slide the floss between the teeth and gently work it up and down, against the surfaces of each tooth. Do not snap the floss down between the teeth as the floss may damage the gums. After flossing, have your child rinse with water, then brush (or if you prefer, brush then floss) your child’s teeth.
If you find flossing your child’s teeth difficult, ask your dentist to show you how to do it. Floss holders can be purchased, which make flossing easier for some children.
If your toddler resists brushing or cannot sit still for 2 minutes, then try these suggestions:
Consider a battery-powered brush, which adds novelty to cleaning their teeth.
Sing nursery rhymes or play a favourite song while you help your child brush their teeth.
Offer a reward every time your toddler allows you to brush for 2 minutes.
Encourage your child to practice teeth cleaning (under your supervision) to instil good oral hygiene habits from an early age. Use a combination of “show and tell” methods. For example, you could brush your teeth as your child imitates you; then next time, tell your child how to brush while you watch.
Make flossing and brushing as much fun as you can to avoid any negative association or resistance. Talk to your dentist if you need more advice.
Importance of setting a good example
Children tend to imitate their parents’ behaviours. If oral hygiene and dental care are important to you, they will be important to your child. Talk to your child about the importance of healthy teeth. A child who understands that teeth have to last a lifetime is more likely to take care of them. Visit your dentist regularly to maintain your own oral health, which will in turn benefit your child.
Did you know?
Sharing spoons or tasting your baby’s food with the same spoon can transfer decay causing bacteria to your child. Keep a set of spoons for your baby’s use only. Wash a dropped dummy under running tap water – don’t clean it in your mouth as doing so may transfer decay-causing bacteria. Maintain your own oral health to decrease the likelihood of transferring decay-causing bacteria.