It’s true baby teeth eventually fall out and are ultimately replaced by adult chompers. But that doesn’t mean kids are off the hook for caring for their first set of teeth. Besides developing healthy habits early on, teaching your child about good oral hygiene can help prevent cavities, tooth rot, and gum infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tooth decay is one of the most common chronic health problems among children. Affecting roughly 20% of kids between 5 and 11, it can be not only painful but also a potential concern when permanent teeth grow in. The good news is that the condition is totally preventable.
Keep scrolling for insight into when to start brushing your kid’s teeth and tips for developing an oral hygiene routine for children of all ages.
When to start
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Dental Association (ADA) both recommend starting a brushing routine around 6 months of age or when the first tooth erupts. Though tooth decay could develop soon as your child’s first teeth appear, a survey by the CDC found that 80% of kids don’t start brushing until after their first birthday.
Of course, it’s never too late to start. We compiled tips and guidance for babies, toddlers, and older kids below.
Teeth brushing for babies and toddlers
While you might be met with resistance at first, brushing your child’s teeth can be a simple, fuss-free process.
What type of toothbrush to use
A soft washcloth or a small piece of wet gauze can work when wiping down an infant’s teeth and gums. When your child’s first few teeth come in, you can graduate to a small soft-bristle toothbrush.
Then once you hit the toddler stage, consider upgrading to an electric toothbrush. Most experts consider this safe after age 3. You can also find vibrating silicone brushes with U-shaped heads that clean kids’ teeth without having to be moved around.
How much toothpaste to use
The ADA recommends using a very small smear of fluoride toothpaste from ages 0 to 3 — about the size of a single grain of rice.
Introducing concepts with books and videos
You can’t expect babies and toddlers to fully grasp the concept of oral hygiene. Still, books and videos can help introduce the idea and potentially get your child excited about brushing.
Teeth brushing for older kids
Most kids still need at least some help brushing until about age 8.
How much toothpaste to use
For children 3 and older, the ADA recommends a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Before you start adding more to their toothbrush, make sure they can spit on command and remind them not to swallow their toothpaste.
Fun toothbrushes and toothpaste
Even with good habits in place from a young age, teeth brushing just isn’t most kids’ idea of fun. With that in mind, flavored toothpaste and toothbrushes featuring their favorite characters might encourage them to stick with it.
Brushing twice a day for two minutes is ideal, but this is easier said than done — even for adults. Kids’ electric toothbrushes often have built-in timers, sometimes with songs that play for two minutes. If not, you can use your phone, a kitchen timer, or get an hourglass for the bathroom counter.
Good habits chart
If your kiddo responds well to rewards, you can create a good habits chart for teeth brushing. Add a sticker each time, then figure out what a brushing streak will get them — maybe a new book or a few extra minutes of screen time before bed.
The importance of fluoride at every age
The ADA only recommends toothpastes containing fluoride, as it’s the only ingredient proven to prevent tooth decay. While it’s important not to swallow toothpaste, fluoride is safe to use. The mineral occurs naturally in oceans, lakes, and rivers, though some cities add extra to the municipal water.
Fluoridated water can be beneficial for infants and toddlers who are still working on their brushing skills. If your community water supply doesn’t have it, you can also ask your pediatrician to prescribe fluoride drops or chewable tablets.
What about flossing?
Children should also floss daily if possible, but we realize adding another step to the routine may seem like a tough feat. Focusing on molars, which fall out later than front teeth and are harder to brush, is a first step. Toddlers can start practicing with flosser picks. When they get used to the idea, you can show them how to work the floss between their teeth. Just bear in mind many kids don’t master flossing until about age 8, so you’ll likely need to lend a hand each night.
Regular dental visits
Regular dental visits are also important. The ADA suggests bringing your child in before their first birthday or as soon as their first tooth comes in, then every six months moving forward. This will help them get used to the process early on. If you have dental insurance, signing them up for coverage at the same time you enroll them in medical insurance can help cover these visits!
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
- Cleveland Clinic. Parents: You May Not Start Brushing Your Child’s Teeth As Soon As You Should ― and Yes, It’s a Big Problem! Health Essentials. 2019. Web.
- Mouth Healthy. Healthy Habits. American Dental Association. Web.
- Mark AM. Your child’s teeth. Journal of the American Dental Association. 2019. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adaj.2018.11.009
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Good Oral Health Starts Early. 2020. Web.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children’s Oral Health. Division of Oral Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2022.
- Thornton-Evans G, et al. Use of Toothpaste and Toothbrushing Patterns Among Children and Adolescents — United States, 2013–2016. Division of Oral Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2019.