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When (and How!) to Start Brushing Baby Teeth

Taking care of kids’ teeth at an age in which they are learning to assert their independence can be a tricky prospect.  Toddlers can have nuclear-level meltdowns over something we see as simple, leaving us confused and, let’s be honest, frustrated! 

Here’s when we need something in our parenting toolbox besides a toothbrush and toothpaste.

We need empathy.

Tooth brushing and flossing can be a challenging new sensation for your toddler’s mouth, which makes this unfamiliar activity a prime target for their emotions to get the better of them.

But, since toddlers are very prone to cavities, it is an especially important habit to enforce.

Toddler Brushing Teeth
This Self-Care Station supports a toddler's independence
Photo: @inspired_little_learners

Here are some helpful tooth brushing tips for young children, shared with us by Dr. Shana Berger Van Cleave, a dentist (and mom!) who treats children of all ages and those with special needs.

Start brushing baby teeth when they are babies.

Brush your baby’s gums before they even have teeth! This will get them more familiar with the sensation of tooth brushing and will lower the amount of bacteria in their mouths when those pearly whites emerge. Take your little one to their first dentist appointment by age one or within 6 months of the first tooth poking through.

Toddlers want to brush their teeth on their own.

Taking a page from the Montessori approach of offering freedom and limits, it’s important to practice a “Yes, and…” for tooth brushing. Yes, they can brush their own teeth, and an adult will also take a turn.

Until they have the manual dexterity to tie their own shoes, they can’t be expected to effectively remove microorganisms off of their teeth. Say, “I’m going to brush for five seconds. Then it’s your turn! 1…2…3…4…5… Now you try!” Continue to repeat until all the surfaces of the teeth are clean.

If your child is not cooperating, they need to know that this is important enough that you are willing to brush their teeth–even under nuclear meltdown conditions. 

The consequences of not participating in good oral hygiene in young kids is often dire. Acknowledge your little one’s perspective out loud.

“I know you don’t like how this feels, but we need to do it anyway.”

Your toddler will learn to tolerate and even like the process if you remain confident and consistent.

Dr. Van Cleave says, “You would never skip a stinky diaper change if they were protesting; brushing teeth is equally as important!”

Teach your toddler the science of brushing teeth.

Even young children can handle big vocabulary words like bacteria. Talk about how food gets stuck to their teeth and turns into bacteria which can make their teeth and gums sick. You can review what your last meal contained and talk about cleaning their teeth. “Let’s make sure your oatmeal didn’t leave any sugar on your teeth. I’m brushing off milk, oatmeal, and bananas right now! When it’s your turn, you can make sure to clean off the raisins and walnuts. We’re not going to let that food turn into bacteria in your mouth!”

Pair your toothbrushing routine with something positive.

Use routines to implement regular brushing and flossing (Yes, Dr. Van Cleave said flossing!) If your child is particularly sensitive to oral care and they know story time happens right after they brush and floss, they can anticipate something fun and enjoyable.

Other ideas for making brushing baby teeth fun: 

  • Include a physical action in your routine, such as blowing a kiss to the reflection in the mirror when you’re done
  • Provide positive commentary, “Your breath is so fresh, I want to give you three butterfly kisses!” (Give a different number and different action each night.)
  • For parents who are able to fit their child on their laps with their head hanging off, going upside down can make toothbrushing fun and also give the adult excellent access to a wide open mouth.

Frequently asked about brushing baby teeth

Should we be using one of those silicone baby toothbrushes or a child-sized toothbrush?

A soft-bristled toothbrush with a small head is ideal for removing the bacteria from baby teeth. For stimulation of the gums and to alleviate teething pain, a silicone bristled brush is fine and will withstand chewing forces better than a regular toothbrush (but doesn’t remove the plaque along the gumline as well).

Brushing a toddler’s teeth every morning and every night sounds like a daunting prospect–we know!

There will be challenges. Luckily, every day is another chance to improve the routine. If you recognize and reinforce dental hygiene as an important part of your child’s health, your kids will learn to love having a clean mouth and a shiny, healthy smile!

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