Tooth brushing is such a simple act. It’s so simple that many parents are unaware how much “good” can be accomplished in two minutes with a toothbrush. Many parents who visit our office describe how difficult it is to brush their children’s teeth. The goal of this article is to help parents with tips on the “whys, hows and whens” of brushing their children’s teeth. Developing good oral health habits from a very young age will lead to a lifetime of good oral health.

Why do we need to brush our children’s teeth? The purpose of tooth brushing is simple-brush away food and bacteria that cause dental disease. The bacteria, or “sugarbugs”, that cause tooth decay are unique. First, they use sugar in our diets to survive and produce acids that causes tooth decay. Second, they can tolerate the acidic environment in your mouth making them better at surviving in a “cavity causing” environment than other bacteria. Third, these bacteria create a sticky glue which “sticks” them to teeth making it harder to clean them off. The result is PLAQUE. When you wake up in the morning before you brush your teeth, those little “sweaters” that your teeth are wearing are the plaque that builds up over night while you are sleeping.

Before teeth appear, wiping baby’s gums with a clean face cloth every day is like training for toothbrushing. Parents should begin brushing their baby’s teeth with an infant or baby toothbrush as soon as the first tooth appears. Brushing teeth after each meal is ideal but impractical for most families. Brushing teeth thoroughly twice per day will help to prevent tooth decay. We recommend brushing in the morning after breakfast and just before bedtime as the best times to have the greatest impact.

Developing new habits with children takes time and practice. Don’t expect preschool children to cooperate with you every time you brush their teeth. Stick to a consistent routine, time of day and place for toothbrushing. This will help your child to learn both the habit and your expectations. Many parents make the mistake of allowing their child to stand in front of the mirror while mom or dad become contortionists while attempting to look into their child’s mouth. The end result is that mom or dad can’t see clearly. It’s like blindfolding yourself and attempting to dice an onion! Because mom or dad can’t see well, their child experiences discomfort which makes tooth brushing an unpleasant activity. To improve your visibility, we recommend lying your child down with their head supported on your lap or by a pillow. You will also have TWO hands free for brushing and moving cheeks and lips out of the way. Toothbrushing will happen faster and easier. Make tooth brushing fun! Sing songs while brushing, read stories about healthy teeth and visiting the dentist. But, most importantly, make sure a parent does the brushing until your child has developed the dexterity to do a good job on their own. Some developmental signs are: ability to WRITE their name correctly, colour INSIDE the lines, and tie their own shoes (not Velcro). These things usually happen around grade 2-3. Make sure you are using a brush that fits your child’s mouth. Toothbrushes need to be the right size to work effectively.

You only need to use a small smear of fluoride toothpaste with each brushing until children are old enough to demonstrate that they can spit out the majority of the toothpaste, around 3-4 years old. After that age, use a small amount, about the size of a small pea. Fluoride helps to harden the tooth enamel making it more resistant to acid. It can be harmful if too much is swallowed. These days, there are a great many flavours of toothpaste, making it more likely that children may eat it if given the opportunity. That said, be sure to keep the toothpaste tube out of children’s reach.

What’s the bottom line? For children less than 4, we recommend parents brush their children’s teeth. For children between 4 and 7 years old, we recommend letting the them brush first, with mom or dad taking the time to check that the child brushed thoroughly. Mom or dad should also complete the brushing if needed. Tooth brushing is a normal part of our daily personal hygiene. It will improve how their smile looks, freshen their breath, and most importantly, reduce the number of bacteria, or “sugarbugs”, living on and around their teeth and gums. Beginning these healthy brushing habits early reduces the risk of tooth decay both now and in the future.