How to Teach Children to Brush Their Teeth

mother and daughter brushing teeth together
Monkey see, monkey do. Keep a family brushing schedule, and make it a habit to brush with your little one -- seeing a parent brush regularly reinforces oral hygiene lessons.
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More than 40 percent of kids have cavities by the time they enter kindergarten [source: CAC-IOHS]. That's a high percentage. Tooth decay is the No. 1 disease affecting young children today. It's five times more common in early childhood than asthma, and seven times more common than hay fever [source: American Academy of Pediatrics].

We can do better for our kids, and one step toward fighting cavities is practicing -- and teaching -- good teeth-brushing habits.


As children, we have 20 primary teeth, or baby teeth. It takes about three years for the complete set to come in, and by the time we turn 12 or 13 they're all gone, replaced by our adult permanent teeth. So, if baby teeth aren't meant to last more than a decade, why is it important to keep them healthy?

Our baby teeth act as guides for our permanent adult teeth. If they're lost prematurely due to decay, our adult teeth may not have enough room to properly come in. Poorly-cared-for baby teeth may also cause infection, pain and discomfort, and problems eating and speaking, as well as issues with low self-esteem.

Even before that first tooth appears, you can and should practice good oral hygiene habits at home. Before your infant has a toothy grin, it's important to keep those gums clean. Gently wipe them with a soft cloth or gauze and water, or with a moist infant-sized toothbrush after every feeding (remember: no teeth, no toothpaste). A secondary benefit of wiping those gums? Your baby may find the light pressure of rubbing offers a bit of relief from teething pain.

The appearance of your baby's first tooth may happen as early as 6 to 7 months old. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that parents schedule their child's first dental visit by her first birthday, or earlier if their child's first tooth begins to erupt before age 1. As soon as the first tooth appears, it's time to begin an at-home routine of brushing twice a day, preferably after breakfast and before bed. Use a soft, small-headed toothbrush and water to remove food, bacteria and other debris, as well as sticky plaque. Until your child is old enough to rinse and spit, don't use toothpaste.

When your child is about 2 or 3 years old, it's time to start teaching her to brush and care for her own teeth. Although teaching basic oral hygiene techniques and habits begins in toddlerhood, this is a process that spans the childhood years -- preschoolers, give or take a few years, don't have the fine motor skills to be experts at toothbrushing, so it's important to continue to teach and supervise your child's brushing habits until she's about 6 to 8 years old. Now that you know the plan of attack, let's talk tips.


Tips for Teaching Children to Brush Their Teeth

Until your child is about 2 to 3 years old, it's best to brush her teeth for her, until she has the level of motor coordination and attention to detail needed to properly care for her teeth on her own. Around her second or third birthday, ease your child into trying to brush her own teeth: Try brushing your child's teeth first, and then have her repeat what you did.

Not sure how to best hold your child as you brush? Sit her on your lap, facing away from you and supporting her head with your arm -- or, alternatively, rest her head in your lap. When your child is a bit older, stand behind her while brushing her teeth.


Choose a soft-bristled, child-sized toothbrush with a handle designed to fit comfortably in your child's hand. Use a pea-sized amount of a fluoride toothpaste for children age 2 or older, and be sure to have them rinse and spit after brushing to avoid swallowing too much fluoride.

Now that you're set up, it's time to brush. While performing each step, talk to your child about what you're doing, why and what the next step will be -- there shouldn't be any surprises. First, brush the inside surfaces of all teeth, angling the bristles at 45 degrees toward the gumline (the angle is important -- this is where plaque accumulates most). Brush one to two teeth at a time using a gentle, circular motion.

Next, clean the outside surfaces of all teeth. Again, be sure to angle the bristles toward the gumline, and brush each tooth with short, gentle circular motions.

Finally, brush the chewing surface of the teeth, and for added good hygiene points, don't forget to brush the surface of the tongue.

Another good way to establish good at-home oral care for the whole family is to make brushing a family habit. Brush together as a family twice a day, especially before bed, for two to three minutes each time. Lose track of time while you brush? Set a timer, upgrade to an electric toothbrush with a built-in timer, or brush along to a favorite song. Also, let every family member choose his or her own toothbrush and toothpaste -- selecting their own style of brush and flavor of paste may help to encourage toothbrushing.

Finally, one of the best ways to be sure your child is learning correct oral hygiene habits is to schedule a dental checkup. Bring your child to her dentist (or hygienist) for a professional lesson about teeth and how to care for them.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • American Academy of Pediatric Dentists. "Pediatric Oral Health Information for Parents: Frequently Asked Questions." (Oct. 21, 2011)
  • American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. "Quick Tips for Busy Parents: 'I Don't Wanna Brush!'" (Oct. 21, 2011)
  • American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Clinical Affairs Committee - Infant Oral Health Subcommittee. "Guideline on Infant Oral Health Care." Clinical Guidelines. Reference Manual. Vol. 33, no. 6. Pages 11 - 12. 2011. (Oct. 21, 2011)
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