We’re human. We’re parents, we are busy. We’re not perfect. Let’s just do the best that we can. Brushing a kid's teeth can be frustrating and discouraging. Don’t give up. Brushing gets easier when you stay consistent. This does make a big difference - I promise!
If you are reading this and your child has already passed some of these ages, just pick up where you are and start building good habits today.
Brushing or wiping teeth should start as soon as the first tooth (or teeth) erupts from the gums and comes into the mouth. Brushing techniques will evolve from this stage. You have probably even read somewhere that you can start brushing or wiping your child’s gums prior to the eruption of teeth to get your child used to the feeling and the process. This early action is not necessary, so do whatever works best for you and your family.
In a perfect world, as soon as the teeth erupt, brush after the last breast or bottle feeding of the night and then offer only water and nothing else to eat or drink throughout the night. A finger brush is a silicone brush that slides on your finger. This brush gives you sufficient control and feel, and also some protection as your child’s bite gets stronger. Warning, your child may bite on your finger. Most of the time, this biting is tolerable and the silicone brush protects your finger. You do not need to use toothpaste at this stage. Although brushing twice a day is ideal, once a day at night at this stage is acceptable.
I treat many children who continue to receive breast or bottle-feed throughout the night after teeth are present. Breastfeeding, which I completely support and encourage, is one of the best things you can do for your child. My responsibility is to make sure that you know that breastfeeding and bottle feeding throughout the night after teeth are present will almost always lead to the development of cavities. The best recommendations are to brush the teeth after the last feeding and eliminate feeding through the night if possible. If night feeding is too hard to break at this time, be sure to wipe the teeth as thoroughly as possible with a damp rag or plain wipes to remove excess milk residue after each night feed.
As your baby starts to hold objects, you may want to introduce a “teether toothbrush.” This toothbrush helps them get comfortable with a brush in their mouth and encourages participating in the homecare routine. However, they are not ready to brush their teeth on their own!
When your child gets their first molars is a good time to start using a regular infant toothbrush. The first molars come at around one year of age. We recommend a soft bristle infant brush with a smaller head. This smaller brush helps you access the back molars and clean them adequately.
The most effective and safest way to brush your baby's teeth is by laying your infant or toddler on their back, and putting their head between your legs (see the video). Focus first on ensuring that your child is in a steady position. You can hold your children’s arms steady by placing them under your legs and putting some pressure down behind the back of your knees (reference the position in the video). This position is similar to the position we use in the pediatric dental office (child laying down and cleaning from behind the head). This position allows you to access all the teeth thoroughly, using both hands. This technique also helps the child become comfortable with having their teeth cleaned while lying down. Another technique for smaller infants is to swaddle them or wrap them in their bath towel after bath. This helps restrict their hands and makes it easy to clean all the teeth well.
For infants and toddlers, how long you brush the teeth is less important than getting in the mouth twice a day just long enough to remove all the debris and plaque. As a parent, I recommend that you get in and get out of the mouth as efficiently as possible. When brushing the front teeth, hold their top lip up while brushing. If you do not hold their lip, the child will often feel the brush across their frenum (the little piece of tissue at the top of your gums above the top of your two front teeth), which can cause discomfort. This discomfort can cause the child to pull away, resulting in cavities in the areas missed while brushing. Brush all the chewing surfaces of the teeth, and then brush the insides of the teeth (or tongue side of the teeth). Next, brush the outside of the teeth (along the gums). Finish by brushing the bottom front and top front of the teeth.
At first, most kiddos will not see brushing as fun. As a mom, I am sharing two videos of my child (~18-months old and ~24-months old). As with some things in life, the beginning is the most challenging. Odds are that your child will not love this new routine. With time, patience, and practice, this activity will become a fun and healthy part of your bedtime routine. After a couple of months of making brushing a part of the bedtime routine, our toddler not only knows that it is tooth brushing time, but has learned to love it, most of the time.
Building dental hygiene habits at a young age will help to ensure that your child maintains lifelong dental health habits. Good oral hygiene is an important life habit that is best started at a young age. Parenting is hard, I know. We feel that we never have enough time. This post is intended to help you and your family incorporate great habits and techniques to start and grow excellent toothbrushing skills and oral hygiene habits.
Remember to brush your teeth TWICE a day and see the dentist TWICE a year!