If caring for your kid’s teeth feels like wrestling an adorable alligator, we get you. Wee ones (even those of dentists) often fight flossing and brushing with all their mini might. This could be because the part of their brain that can help them delay gratification, stay focused, be logical, fight impulses, and basically cooperate — the prefrontal cortex — isn’t fully developed until they’re about age 25!
But before the thought of brushing your college-aged kid’s teeth sends you into a panic, don’t despair. Brushing and flossing doesn’t have to be a twice-daily battle for years to come. Instead, you can harness the power of play to turn what can feel like torture into a chance to giggle and dance. Taking a broader view of oral health care that includes nutrition can also help.
In honor of National Children’s Dental Health Month this February, here are 10+ tips for keeping kids’ teeth shining as bright as their sunshiney smiles.
Even the cute gummy grins of newborns need gentle care. Begin by wetting a soft washcloth or gauze and wiping down your baby’s gums twice a day. Then after the first pearly whites pop up, you can use an extra-soft child’s toothbrush to gently massage the teeth and gums.
To help prevent cavities, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends using a rice-grain–sized smear of fluoride toothpaste on a kid-friendly toothbrush until your tot can reliably swish and spit — typically around age 3. Once they get the hang of spitting out toothpaste instead of swallowing it, you can upgrade to a pea-sized dollop.
Toothbrushing is more important than toothpaste for beginning brushers. So if that yummy-flavored fluoride toothpaste tempts your toddler to suck on the brush, skip it for now. Starting with a fluoride-free toothpaste is also a good option.
When to start flossing? Parents magazine suggests this simple test: “If you can’t see a space or see the gums between a pair of teeth, slide a piece of floss between them. If it sticks a little you know the teeth are touching and it’s time to floss.”
Put on some catchy music (be it “Baby Shark” or the Beatles) and throw a floss party! Nimble floss picks can come in handy at this stage and having your child lie down on your lap can make it easier to reach the back molars, once they come through.
Until your kids are around 6 to 8 years old, you’ll need to brush and floss your nippers’ gnashers for them. Their little fingers don’t have the dexterity yet to reliably and gently clean all their teeth.
To keep your kiddo’s teeth on track for a lifetime of bright smiles, take your baby to the dentist after the first tooth appears or by the time you light that lone first birthday candle. Just try to avoid scheduling the appointment during naptime, and help prepare your tyke by reading related books. Find a kid-friendly or pediatric dentist, who will have lots of clever tricks up her clinical-jacket sleeves to keep squirmy kids calm. An end-of-visit “treasure chest” full of cheap toys can work wonders.
Simple games and dramatic stories can help turn toothbrushing and flossing time into one of the day’s silliest moments. Go on a safari in your little adventurer’s mouth, and use the toothbrush to seek out lions, gorillas, and hippos, complete with sound effects. Or perhaps for two minutes your child morphs into a superhero that cleans out the “bad guys” that are hiding between two molars with her magical, lasso-like floss. Get creative and wacky, and follow your kid’s imaginative lead.
Good tunes and a little hip-shakin’ can turn just about any task into a treat (hence the “Cleaning the House” playlist). Whether your tiny toothbrusher digs Elmo’s “Brushy Brush” video, with cameos by Bruno Mars and Nicole Kidman, or something more old-school, like “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley, you can use music to help motivate her to complete a full two minutes of tooth cleaning. Check out our post on raising floss fanatics for more song suggestions for ears (and teeth) of all ages.
When kids are first learning to brush and floss, they’re going to miss quite a few spots. While you might have them first practice on a stuffie or doll before they “graduate” to their own teeth, don’t get too hung up on perfect technique. It’s more important that dental hygiene becomes a regular habit.
Follow up your child’s effort with a quick “check” to see if there are any “sugar bugs,” “molar monsters,” or “tooth trolls” (or simply “food” or whatever term is most friendly for your kid) still lurking in their mouths. That’s when you do some actual brushing and flossing to remove cavity-causing bacteria.
Some parents then allow their children to become pretend half-pint dentists and have a turn brushing “mommy’s” or “daddy’s” teeth. (Just be sure not to use the same toothbrush for this. You don’t want to pass on any cavity- or gum disease-causing bacteria from your mouth.)
Even after they’ve started brushing and flossing solo, your fledglings might enjoy the routine more if you care for your own teeth with them. The time together gives you a chance to demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques and peep their chompers to make sure they’re following your lead. Bonus: a house full of people with healthy teeth and gums!
Tape a chart to the bathroom mirror or wall and mark each day they brush and floss with a fun stamp or sticker. You can draw a chart yourself or your dentist might have copies of one you can use. You can also find printable brushing and flossing charts online. We’re particularly fond of this 21-day tracker. 😊 (Psst — mom and dad, our 21-Day Floss Challenge may be just what you need to solidify your own floss habit.)
Every time they brush and floss, shower your tots with praise and give them a little, non-candy treat, like an extra story at bedtime or — you guessed it — another sticker. (Anything more elaborate may be hard to sustain over the coming months or years of rewards.)
Though it may be years until your youngsters lose their first tooth (usually around age 5 or 6), the magical tooth fairy can be a major motivator for tiny ones to keep teeth clean. Afterall, the tooth fairy wants clean, pearly whites to build her castle.
According to the ADA, the tooth fairy tells kids, “My assistant Dr. Floss gives me daily reports to let me know if you are brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing once a day, and that you are eating healthy foods. I also have a little fairy helper named Sparkle. She’s so small that you can’t see her, but she works with Dr. Floss and they report to me if you have been taking care of your teeth.”
The glorious no-spill sippy cup may seem like a sanity-saver — afterall, it was invented in 1988 by a mechanical engineer dad who was tired of cleaning up his son’s endless beverage accidents. Unfortunately, sippy cups may cause more problems than they prevent in the long run, as they are responsible for thousands of injuries each year, help cause tooth decay due constant consumption of sweet drinks, and may get in the way of oral motor development.
The ADA now recommends that parents transition their tykes from breast- or bottle-feeding to training cups that donot feature a no-spill valve. That will allow the child to actually learn how to sip, rather than suck (as most sippy cups require), and will help develop a “mature swallow pattern,” an important step in learning how to use that sweet rosebud mouth for more than drinking milk.
By the way, if your child does carry around a cup most of the day, make sure it’s filled with water rather than any other naturally sweet drink, including juice or milk. That will keep tooth decay from having a 24-hour heyday, and will also make sure your snack-sized connoisseur is hungry for more nutritious food at mealtimes.
Another convenient baby-feeding invention is now drawing fire: food pouches. As reported in The New York Times: “The pouches’ entry into the baby food market is so recent that there isn’t yet published research on their impact, but they are enough of a departure from traditional baby foods that they raise several theoretical concerns, including delaying motor development, diluting nutritional quality, and increasing picky eating and cavities in young kids.”
The main problems seem to happen when parents become too reliant on baby food pouches for multiple meals. That’s when children don’t have a chance to practice regular chewing, which could keep the jaw from developing normally. Kids also need to be exposed to the sensory experiences of eating to help them from becoming overly selective later on. So sealed food that comes in just one texture — mushy — limits the wonderful world of food to what can easily be squeezed out of 4-ounce plastic pouch (which, BTW, isn’t easily recyclable).
Looking for an alternative? Consider baby-led weaning, where new-to-solids eaters skip purées all together and go right from breastmilk or formula to easy-to-grab finger foods, such as steamed broccoli trees. Research has shown that if done right, baby-led weaning is as safe as feeding with a spoon. It’s also a hot mess of cuteness.
Few things get kids more excited than getting to be the decider. Let your tiny tastemaker flex some executive decision-making power in the oral care aisle. These days, children’s toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss all come in a range of fun flavors and styles.
May we recommend our Cocofloss 4-Piece Set? With this variety pack, your future CEO can look forward to choosing between Delicious Mint, Fresh Coconut, Cara Cara Orange, and Pure Strawberry every night. Yum!
You can also let your floss boss baby help you design a CocoBox, filled with a six-month supply of the floss preferred by 9 out of 10 tooth fairies (or so we imagine). You’ll never run out of Cocofloss, you’ll save up to 20%, and your children will love regularly receiving a package full of their favorite scrumptious fragrances. You can even sync the delivery to around a birthday and half birthday to promote pride in your wee flosser’s success at keeping her teeth clean as she grows.
Building that LEGO set may take dozens of steps, but working on it with your child is worth it to see that sparkling smile. Building a CocoBox is much easier, and it will keep that heart-tugging grin going for months to come. Fill yours with a six-month supply of kid-friendly varieties — such as Delicious Mint, Fresh Coconut, Cara Cara Orange, and Pure Strawberry — and for a limited time, Dark Chocolate. 🍫❤️