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All your questions about brushing kids’ teeth, answered

Brushing our teeth twice a day is something most of us do without even thinking about it. Throw kids into the mix, however, and it’s a whole new ball game. We put your questions to HCF Dentist Dr Chris Ho.

We all want to think we’re doing the right thing when it comes to our kids’ teeth. Helping them maintain strong teeth, healthy gums and setting up good dental routines at home is one of the best ways to avoid the discomfort (and cost) of dental work down the track.

So what should we be doing? How much help do young children need? And how do we stop the bathroom sink from becoming a daily battleground?

Here’s HCF Dentist Dr Chris Ho’s advice on how to help your kids form healthy habits that will build a lifetime of healthy smiles.

When should I start brushing my child’s teeth?

While some babies start teething as early as 3 months, most parents notice the first tiny baby teeth pushing through between 4 and 7 months.

“I recommend brushing baby teeth at the first sign of them coming through to get your baby used to the feel of a toothbrush,” says Dr Ho. “Sometimes there’ll be some resistance at that age, in which case it’s fine to wait until your child starts having solid food.

“The important thing is to keep helping little ones with brushing their teeth. Young children aren’t able to brush their own teeth properly until they are at least 6 or 7 years old. You should keep helping them for as long as they’ll let you!”

It’s also recommended that you start to floss your kids’ teeth once they have at least 2 teeth touching side-by-side, which usually happens around the age of 2. To get the right angle for this, it can help to lie your child across your lap, or to stand behind your kid with their head tilted slightly back.

What's the best type of toothbrush for kids?

Browsing the kids’ toothbrush section in a pharmacy or supermarket can be a little daunting. But the different colours, shapes and sizes are all just window dressing. Buying the right toothbrush for your child comes down to a couple of basics, and a lot of personal choice.

“Any small toothbrush with soft bristles is suitable for kids,” says Dr Ho. “You just need to make sure it cleans properly without being too hard on sensitive young gums. For a very young child, a manual toothbrush with soft bristles and a small head will do the job. From about 3 years old I typically recommend a kids’ electric toothbrush – if it plays music or has a cartoon theme, children may find it more engaging and be more willing to use it.”

What toothpaste should I use on my child’s teeth?

Fluoride is an essential part of dental health. It helps prevent cavities, strengthens tooth enamel and can even reverse the early stages of tooth decay. But it’s important to supervise kids cleaning their teeth, and encourage them to spit so they don’t swallow too much toothpaste.

“There are a lot of toothpastes on the market for kids that have a reduced amount of fluoride,” says Dr Ho. “This lower level of fluoride is quite safe for children who haven’t yet learned how to spit out any excess. I recommend about half a pea size of toothpaste on the brush for kids up to age 5. After that I recommend kids phase into an adult toothpaste (only a small pea-size amount), or they can wait a bit longer if they’re still trying to master the art of spitting.”

What can I do if my child hates toothpaste?

Some children don’t like the taste of mint. Other kids might not like the texture of the paste. Luckily there are many varieties of kids’ toothpaste out there, from fruity flavours to sparkly gels – and even plain toothpastes that taste of not much at all. So hopefully you’ll be able to find one for your child that passes the brush test. But if you’re battle weary, this may cheer you up.

“At the end of the day, brushing with just water is definitely better than no brushing at all,” says Dr Ho. “Toothpaste is designed to deliver fluoride supplements to strengthen tooth enamel. While brushing with no toothpaste obviously won’t achieve that, it’s still very effective against breaking down bacteria and plaque.”

How do I stop teeth-brushing time with my kids becoming a battle?

First thing’s first, know you’re not alone. Struggles, tears, guilt and frustration around cleaning kids’ teeth are fairly common – and the worst part is you have to do it twice a day, every day.

“Teeth brushing should be fun in children’s eyes, not a chore,” says Dr Ho. “Positive reinforcement – lots of praise – is something I encourage everyone to do. And it’s important to lead by example, so brush your teeth together as a family. This will make it much more engaging for children. There are also all sorts of reward apps that can make brushing teeth fun. And even if you’re feeling worn down, try to stay calm and be persistent, because it’ll be worth it. Short-term pain for long-term gain.”

At what age should kids visit the dentist?

Despite best efforts, tooth decay – rotten teeth in kids – is on the rise in Australia. According to Health Direct Australia children aged 5 to 10 years have an average of 1 and a half decayed, missing, or filled baby teeth. So it’s important to make sure your child has regular dental check-ups.

Your dentist can keep an eye out for problems you might not spot, and make sure your kids’ teeth are developing in the right way.

“Children mature at different rates, but I’d usually recommend taking a child for their first dental appointment by the age of 2,” says Dr Ho. “By this stage they’ll be able to understand what’s going on. The earlier they get used to a dentist looking at their teeth, the less likely they are to be apprehensive in later life.

“It’s important to keep the appointment short and sweet, to avoid stressing the child out. After that initial check-up, a regular visit every 6 months is recommended for children – and adults, too!”

HCF’s Dr Ho’s top 6 teeth-brushing tips for parents

  1. Start brushing your child’s teeth gently with a small, soft brush, as soon as the first teeth appear.
  2. Lead by example. Families that brush together have happier bedtimes.
  3. Give lots of praise for good brushing habits.
  4. Try an electric toothbrush for older kids to make brushing fun.
  5. Get little ones to their first dentist visit by the time they’re 2 years old.
  6. Be persistent. Your kids will thank you for it later.

Words by Sarah Mulcahy and Dr Chris Ho
First published February 2022

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