Ask the Pediatrician: How Can Parents Teach Kids to Brush Their Teeth Properly?
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Q: Teaching my 3-year-old how to brush her own teeth is difficult — and messy. What can I do to make this easier?
AN: It can take some time, and yes, it can be quite messy, but kids eventually learn to brush their teeth on their own. Be patient and try the following practical suggestions to make brushing more successful and enjoyable – and ultimately a matter of routine for your child.
• Start early: Hopefully you started early with your child. No teeth yet? No problem. Just going through the motions by brushing and cleaning the gums regularly still serves a very useful purpose in getting your child used to brushing.
• Brush often: While we focus a lot on brushing before bed, technically your goal of brushing your teeth is to get the food off, and the sooner the better. Yet few adults we know get into the habit of brushing their teeth all day long. If you start brushing your child early after meals, you’re much more likely to develop a lasting habit.
• Sing, sing a song: Or set a timer. Or come up with another creative way to keep your child busy brushing their teeth for the recommended two minutes, or at least as long as it takes to ensure that your and your child’s efforts leave them clean. Some toothbrushes light up or play music for as long as a child is supposed to keep brushing so that kids aren’t fooled into thinking they’ve brushed long enough.
• Check it out: If your child shows signs of independence and insists on brushing alone, definitely let him do it. Don’t forget to make it a habit to proudly “view” the work at the end of each session, while doing some casual updating yourself. You’ll probably have to help brush and do some inspection for a few more years.
• Appealing to the taste: If Cinderella, the cat in the hat, a race car or an electric toothbrush like yours has better chances of winning over your child than you do, please do. Feel free to enjoy their taste by letting them choose toothbrushes and toothpaste that they can really get excited about. Many flavored toothpastes taste great and make brushing fun.
• Hands off: Around the age you are likely to start brushing, your child is likely to start grasping. Giving them their own (or two) soft-bristled brush and holding them can help you avoid arguing over yours — leaving you well-equipped to get the job done. Sure, it might take three toothbrushes instead of one, but it’s a small price to pay for a routine that really works.
• Go where no child has gone before: We recommend that you pay special attention (and draw your child’s attention) to those teeth that are most likely to be neglected. As you help them brush, describe what you’re doing in terms they can relate to by pointing out their biting teeth (the chewing surfaces), their laughing teeth (you guessed it — way up front), and the awkward teeth in the back. Your goal: to teach your child not to leave dental plaque alone.
• How much? All children can benefit from fluoride, but it is important to use the right amount of toothpaste. Current recommendations recommend using a swab of fluoride toothpaste (or a grain-sized amount) for children under the age of 3 and a pea-sized amount for children aged 3 to 6. Because the fluoride in toothpaste is clearly intended to be but not swallowed, make sure to help or monitor your child while brushing. When they are old enough, tell them to spit out the toothpaste after brushing.
Oral health starts early and all children need access to a dentist for regular care. See your child’s dentist before the first birthday or within six months of the first tooth. At this first visit, your dentist can easily check your child’s teeth, determine the frequency of future dental checkups, and provide other tips to make brushing easier.
dr. Laura A. Jana is a pediatrician with a faculty position at Penn State University’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. dr. Jennifer Shu is medical editor of HealthyChildren.org and a practicing pediatrician at Children’s Medical Group in Atlanta, Georgia. They are the authors of “Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup, 2nd Edition.” For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parenting website.
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