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Teeth brushing tips from the pros

Young child looking in a mirror while brushing his teeth.

It may feel like a constant battle every day, getting kids to brush their teeth properly. Sometimes bribery works or maybe you just give up the battle for that day. Oral hygiene is so important and can affect a child’s overall health. Here are a few tips for helping kids get into the habit of brushing their teeth.

Start early

Children as young as infants can start to be exposed to good oral hygiene. Even a baby without teeth! Try to wipe your infant’s mouth with a clean, damp washcloth to help get them used to having their mouth touched and cleaned. It will help them with the different sensations they will experience. When teeth start to appear, start to use a soft-bristled toothbrush.

With children 2-6 years old, use a toddler-sized toothbrush with soft bristles and add a rice-sized amount of toothpaste. Toothbrushes can be either manual or electric. If they are unable to spit, use an infant or training toothpaste without fluoride. If they can spit, you can use a children’s toothpaste with fluoride.

Kids 12 years and older can use an adult-sized toothbrush with soft bristles. For toothpaste at this age, use a pea-sized amount with fluoride. An over-the-counter mouthwash with fluoride (i.e. ACT) can also be used.

What to teach

  • Brush 2 times a day, for 2 minutes each time. Brush once in the morning and once before bed.
  • Floss 1 time a day using either string floss or handheld plastic flossers.
  • Use a rice-sized amount of toothpaste for 2- to 6-year-old kids.
  • Use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste for 6- to 12-year-old kids, and the same amount for kids 12 and older.
  • Mouth rinse is not recommended for young children and only for 6–12-year-old children if recommended by a dentist.

Tips for better brushing

  • Be an example – Kids are still learning and are more likely to brush if they see you do it too!
  • Take turns – Give your young child their own toothbrush and time to brush themselves. Then say, my turn! Brush together. They can brush your teeth, then it’s your turn to brush theirs.
  • Get them in position – For very young kids who love to wiggle, you can try brushing their teeth in their highchair, where they don’t have a chance to run away. Alternatively, try a position with your child laying their head down in your lap while you brush their teeth.
  • Make it fun – Try a game of Simon says. You can play with brushing the top teeth or the bottom or brushing with a silly face. There are also some songs made specifically for brushing teeth that last 2 minutes. You can also try a reward system with stickers or a small prize.
  • Offer choices - By letting kids be involved in the process, the more likely they are to do it. Let them pick their toothpaste or toothbrush color.
  • Try an app – There or many apps available that have timers, games, and songs to help motivate kids to brush their teeth.

Good oral hygiene is important not only for oral health but also for overall health. Be patient. It’ll take time to show your child the techniques and to set up a consistent schedule. Good luck!

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Pediatric Dentistry

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Dentistry, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry