Successful toddler teeth brushing should win an X Games medal. I’m not kidding when I say that for me it was definitely the most exhausting part of raising kids – and we had to do it TWICE A DAY! Brushing a young child’s teeth requires tenacity, physical strength and an incredible amount of negotiation skills. Gator wrestling Steve Irwin had nothing against me as I held my child, insisting it was good for him to shove a bristle stick into his tiny mouth.
As you can probably tell, I am traumatized, and I suspect some of you will be too. Which begs the question, is it worth taking care of baby teeth at all? Why would we put so much effort into something that is only going to fall out anyway? Can’t we just treat baby teeth as a kind of “dry run” and let them fall out if necessary? And if we really have to take milk teeth seriously, how do I ultimately make this unpleasant activity worthwhile? We spoke to some experts to find out the answers.
Why starting young matters
If you’ve had to deal with tears while brushing your teeth, take heart: it’s all been worth it. Research shows that the health of primary teeth is an early predictor of how healthy your child’s adult teeth will be.
The dental experts we consulted all say that not only is caring for primary teeth worthwhile, but not taking care of them can be far more damaging than we thought. In fact, tooth decay can lead to or exacerbate numerous health problems, and decayed baby teeth can infect emerging permanent teeth.
“The bacteria in the mouth can certainly affect the development of baby teeth,” said Gregory W. Olson, professor and chair of pediatric dentistry at UTHealth School of Dentistry in Houston. “Once the decay spreads beyond the teeth and into the bones, it can be very, very serious.” Olson says you should treat any tooth decay to halt the progression of decay and maintain an infection-free environment for the permanent teeth to develop. The existing bacteria of a decaying baby tooth — or teeth — can invade developing permanent teeth if not treated thoroughly, leading to a lifetime of cavities.
Ray J. Jurado, chief of dentistry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, says it’s important to start good habits as soon as the first baby tooth comes through. He says you can start by wiping the tooth with gauze or brushing it with a finger hair. “Get them comfortable with the feel and routine at a young age. That way you have less to fight once you introduce a toothbrush,” he says.
Remember that sugar + time = cavities
If you think you can take your kids to a sugar-filled party and have them pass out in bed without brushing properly, think again. According to Jurado and Olson, the most important thing for parents to remember when caring for their children’s teeth is that the longer sugary substances remain on teeth, the more susceptible those teeth are to decay.
That’s something to think about if you’re using sticky candies as a bribe to get your kid out the door. “A sucker, juice, gummy bears — those are the things you want to get off the teeth ASAP,” says Jurado. He recommends brushing teeth after breakfast and, if possible, shortly after consuming sticky and sugary sweets.
Jurado says if you really rely on sweets to motivate your kid (ahem, me), a sugar-free Xylitol lollipop could be your answer. “It’s been known to cause an upset stomach in some kids, so definitely keep an eye out for that. But if your child is doing well on Xylitol, they’re a really good option and are gaining popularity.”
Get 25 Zollipops Clean Teeth Lollipops on Amazon.com for $8.99
Good brushing technique is essential
While many of us may think it’s fine to let a little one chew on a toothbrush for a few minutes and think of that as brushing their teeth, it really isn’t. It is important to teach children proper technique and to pay attention to all surfaces of a tooth.
Olson says you need to make sure you get a toothbrush that’s the right size for a small mouth, because “a toothbrush that’s too big will be cumbersome and cause confusion for a small child.” Jurado says you can take it one step further by investing in an electric toothbrush for kids. He says it will help a less coordinated child accomplish more in a shorter amount of time and allow a parent to jump in quickly to get the job done.
Both doctors say kids will fight, but it’s a necessary evil. “Keep going and they’ll get used to it over time. If you don’t stick to it, it gets harder when they’re 9 years old and not doing it on their own,” says Jurado. He says being a good model helps, so make time for brushing your teeth and let them mirror what you’re doing. “It may take a year or two for them to mimic, but they’ll get there.”
Since children generally dislike brushing, it can be very difficult to know at what age they should be proficient at it. I was sure our son hadn’t mastered the proper technique because he hated brushing his teeth, but it turned out that his teeth brushing skills were only lacking because he wasn’t developmentally ready to brush on his own.
According to Olson and Jurado, you should brush your children’s teeth until they are 6 years old. “As they get older, they want independence, but it’s very important for parents to maintain technique and consistency,” says Olson. He recommends being with them and watching them brush until they’re at least 6 years old — for some kids it could be older — and brushing your own teeth past them until they’re at least 8 to 10 years old.
Take them to the dentist after seeing the first tooth
Jurado and Olson both recommend seeing a dentist within six months of your child’s first tooth erupting. Parents often wonder why bring a child so young when there’s so little to do, but Jurado says the point isn’t about getting a dentist to treat a little patient, it’s about creating an opportunity for an educational moment between a family and a care team: “We want to know if the child is on any medications, if there are any developmental issues that require us to keep an eye on things, we want to know how brushing is going – if it’s challenging, can often help – and we want to draw up a personal prevention plan.”
Jurado says dentists can sometimes come up with really fun strategies for getting kids to brush: “For example, I recommend phone apps with timers. If you give a kid a phone while you’re working on their teeth, they’ll let you do whatever it takes to and it works just as well at home as it does in the dental chair.”
Some toothbrushing apps we like are Brushing Hero (available on iOS or Android) and Chomper Chums (available on iOS or Android).
Are x-rays really important?
Olson says whether X-rays are important or not really depends on the child. He encourages you to ask about the reason for the X-rays and what information your dentist hopes to get. “Dental X-rays are less radiation than ever and there is a higher level of safety than ever before, but it’s not out of the question to ask why a child might need them and to make an informed decision about what’s right for your child,” he says.
However, Olson points out, most kids need X-rays by age 6 or 7. Whether your child is starting to lose his baby teeth or not, they are developing beneath the surface. An X-ray can help a dentist determine whether or not the teeth are developing properly. “It gives us a piece of important information in the big picture,” he says.
Yes, your child should floss
This was my most disappointing finding while writing this piece – according to our experts and Stanford Children’s Health, flossing should start around age 2 or 3, or when their teeth are so full that two teeth are touching. When teeth first come in and your child eats mostly a healthy diet low in sweets and gummies, you can probably skip this step. “I’m not a fan of chocolate, but even a chocolate chip here and there won’t be a big deal. It’s the gooey candies that you really need to watch out for,” says Jurado. Think taffy, Twizzlers, gummy bears, and gummy vitamins. “If gummy vitamins are part of your routine, you probably want to floss.”
It’s important to learn the basics early on: use a soft toothbrush with fluoride toothpaste made especially for kids and brush for two minutes or more. A toothbrush that is too firm can cause the gums to recede and no matter how young the gums are, they don’t regenerate – once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Olson notes that maintaining your toothbrush tools is important, but often forgotten. “If a toothbrush has been left around for too long with flared bristles, it won’t do its job properly and a child may even develop bad brushing habits. An electric toothbrush that isn’t maintained can harbor bacteria that can cause infections. Aggressive flossing can cause gum disease. Just like having a car, but how you drive the car is what matters.”
Two minutes of brushing is a general rule of thumb, but Jurado says the full duration all depends on what you’re using and how good you are at it. “A spinning brush or a kid’s Oral-B or Sonicare can get the job done in a minute and a half,” says Jurardo.
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