About the Author
Dr. Jill Jenkins founded Jenkins Dentistry for Kids in Shawnee after practicing as a pediatric dentist in the Kansas City area for 15 years and being a mom for over 20 years. She loves to build relationships with children and their families through oral health education and care. Dr. Jenkins is also heavily involved in organized dentistry as the Immediate Past President of the local Fifth District Dental Association and President-Elect of the Kansas Dental Association. She was also honored to receive the Dentist of the Year award in 2019 by the Fifth District Dental Association.
As parents, there are so many tasks we oversee for the well-being of our children. The list goes on and on, from the challenging diaper changes in infancy to potty training in the toddler years. Tooth brushing and oral care can often feel like one of those more demanding duties. However challenging it may be, good oral health is a crucial component to children’s overall health. Here are some age-appropriate suggestions for realistic approaches to oral care for infants and toddlers.
Brushing Tips for Infants
Cleaning the newly grown teeth is incredibly important to keep those teeth strong and healthy throughout childhood. Once teeth start growing, I recommend wiping the teeth after meals and bottles using something as simple as the same washcloth you would use to clean a child’s face. This act reduces the contact of foods and liquids (mainly sugars) with the tooth surface.
Additionally, once a day, during your bedtime routine, brush the teeth that are present. While your infant is laying down to change clothes, brush with a grain size amount of fluoride toothpaste, which is safe even though your infant can’t spit it out yet. This age is the best time to start a consistent brushing routine. Sing the same song (ABC’s is a personal favorite, but I get many requests for Baby Shark these days, too), or recite the same nursery rhyme to develop a comforting routine around brushing.
Just like some babies hate a diaper change, some babies will resist toothbrushing. This doesn’t mean they are in pain or distress. It’s just as important to clean their teeth daily as it is to clean their bottoms from a dirty diaper!
Brushing Tips for Toddlers
Oh, the joy of an independent toddler! The “I can do it myself” phase was one of the sweetest and most challenging as a mother for me. Toddlers are testing boundaries on everything, and it’s hard to know where and when to give in.
Many kiddos push back against brushing at this age. If you can’t relate, the rest of us mommies are very jealous! This is usually the age we are potty training, desperately trying anything, often with rewards of sweet treats. Accordingly, twice a day brushing is crucial to good oral health at this age. I like to focus on evening brushing as my non-negotiable with toddlers and my morning brushing as a little more child-led. The changing table is still my go-to place for night brushing, but as your child outgrows that phase, brushing can transition to an opportunity for snuggle time too.
Sitting on the sofa with your child laid down with their head in your lap is an excellent brushing position. I recommend this position as a follow-up after you have facilitated a ‘big kid’ brushing attempt, where they can practice brushing, flossing, and spitting ALL BY MYSELF (more realistically just sucking the grain size of fluoride toothpaste off the brush and splashing in the sink). It takes patience, but remember you are building good lifetime habits. Some families use the bathtub for the child-led brushing time with a little less mess too.
Practice Makes Perfect!
However your child may ‘practice,’ it is still imperative that parents perform a thorough brushing and flossing for your child’s teeth before bedtime, as they do not yet have the dexterity to reach all the important nooks and crannies of their mouth. If you get push-back, let them hold one toothbrush to chew on the handle while you brush the opposite side of their mouth with a second toothbrush and alternate sides.
The same technique works well while flossing too. As your child chews on the thick end of the handle, it prevents them from closing down as you floss the back teeth. I find the handled floss holders work the best at this age to reach those trickier back teeth.
Harness the power of this newfound independence and praise and thank them for helping you with these ‘big kid’ jobs. Keep the same song going from infancy for even more consistency and routine. This oral care approach can offer a rare chance to slow down from the day and glimpse the changes and growth your child is experiencing every day. See this time as an opportunity to connect, rather than another task on your seemingly never-ending list. It may give you a different perspective about the process.
Pediatric Dentistry to the Rescue!
Your pediatric dentist will discuss these and many other recommendations at your child’s first dental appointment. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Dental Association recommends seeing a pediatric dentist by age one.
This early visit allows you the opportunity to discuss these challenges with your pediatric dentist personally. It sets the stage for good oral care based on the unique early development of your child.