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Brushing and Flossing a Child's Teeth

Topic Overview

It's best to start good oral health habits before permanent teeth come in. Some tips on dental care for a child include the following:

  • Use a soft cloth to clean your baby's gums. Start a few days after birth, and do this until the first teeth come in.
  • Clean your baby's first teeth with a soft-bristled baby toothbrush twice a day. If your child is younger than 3 years, ask your dentist if it's okay to use a rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Use a pea-sized amount for children ages 3 to 6 years. It's dangerous if your child swallows too much fluoride. Have your child spit out extra toothpaste. Keep all fluoride products, such as toothpastes and mouthwashes, away from your child. Too much fluoride may be toxic and can stain a child's teeth.
  • Flossing is an important part of good dental health. Start flossing your child's teeth when he or she has teeth that touch each other. Talk with your dentist about the right timing and technique to floss your child's teeth and to teach your child to floss. Plastic flossing tools may be helpful.
  • From time to time, you may want to use disclosing tablets. Disclosing tablets are chewable tablets that colour any plaque that remains after brushing. You can get these tablets at most drugstores.
  • If your child age 6 or older has cavities, ask the dentist if your child should try mouthwash. Do not give your child a mouthwash that contains alcohol. The alcohol can be harmful if swallowed.

How to brush your child's teeth

  • Kneel down behind your child and have him or her stand between your knees, facing away from you.
  • With one hand, gently press your child's head against your chest.
  • With the other hand, brush his or her teeth. You may also push away the upper and lower lips to make it easier to get to the teeth.
  • Pay special attention to where the teeth meet the gums.

Although some children quickly learn to brush their teeth, others do not. If you are having trouble getting your child to brush, try some of the following suggestions.

  • My, what big teeth you have! Many children have a favourite stuffed animal or action figure. Use the toy to explain why it is important to brush. Then, have your child brush the toy's teeth after brushing his or her own teeth.
  • Monkey see, monkey do. Brush your teeth together with your child and do it in stages. You can also switch roles and let your child lead the brushing.
  • Time is on my side. Use a timer or hourglass. Choose a time that lasts for as long as you feel is necessary. Humming a favourite song while brushing can also keep your child brushing longer.
  • Sticks to a card, not your teeth. To reward your child for doing well, make a form that he or she can put a sticker on after brushing. Use a variety of stickers.

You can also involve your child in dental health by letting him or her pick out a toothbrush and toothpaste. Talk to your dentist about the type of toothbrush your child needs, and steer your child in that direction. When choosing a toothpaste, stay clear of tartar-cleaning toothpastes, as they may taste bad or "sting" a young child's mouth. Ask your child if he or she likes the toothpaste, and change it if this is not the case.

Your child can learn how to brush his or her own teeth at about 3 years of age and should be brushing his or her own teeth morning and night by age 4. Parents should supervise and check for proper cleaning.

By 8 years of age, your child will probably no longer need your help. It is important that your child make brushing a habit, as this limits tooth decay and helps prevent cavities.

Set a good example. Children imitate their parents. If your child sees that you don't brush, don't seem to enjoy brushing, or do it too quickly, he or she might well do the same.


Current as of: June 30, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Brian D. O'Brien MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine