For many parents, teaching kids good dental hygiene is a twice-daily battle. But as experts point out, it’s a fight worth having. Though it’s largely preventable, tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease among children aged 6-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poor oral hygiene has been linked to everything from speech delays to dental pain and infections to diabetes.
“We know that oral health is closely linked to overall health,” explains Mary Lee Conicella, DMD, Aetna’s chief dental officer. “If we make sure children receive proper dental education and care early on, it will help them to be healthy throughout their lives.”
Here are five ways to make brushing and flossing a fun — and regular — part of your child’s daily routine.
START THE ORAL HYGIENE EARLY
It’s never too early to make brushing and flossing a part of their morning and nightly routines. In fact, dentists recommend starting dental care even before your child’s first tooth arrives. During infancy, wipe down their gums nightly with a soft, damp cloth. Switch to a toothbrush when their teeth come in (usually around 6 months of age), and floss once teeth start touching (typically around age 2 or 3). Schedule a visit to the dentist by the first birthday, regardless of how many teeth they have. (Simple mindfulness exercises can help soothe any pre-appointment jitters.) Check with your dental provider about the benefits surrounding semi-annual checkups.
SET A GOOD EXAMPLE.
When it comes to teaching good dental hygiene, practice what you preach. “A child emulates whatever a parent is doing,” explains Allena Willis Kennerly, DMD, owner of Smashing Smiles Orthodontics in Washington, D.C. “So if your child regularly sees you flossing, she’s more likely to floss.” For added fun, pretend to be a mirror the next time you and your kid brush together and encourage them to copy your every move.
Turn toothbrushing into a game.
Whether you’re 6 or 66, dentists recommend brushing teeth twice a day, for two minutes at a time. That’s because studies show that the longer you brush, the more plaque you remove, says Conicella. Try one of these creative games to help them meet the two-minute mark:
Brush during a commercial break. During each 30-second commercial, have your child brush a quadrant of their mouth. By the time they’re done, Kennerly says, their show is back on. Just remember to turn off the TV at least a half-hour before bedtime to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Set a timer. Overturn an egg timer filled with colorful sand, and challenge them to keep brushing until all the sand has reached the bottom. Or buy your child a toothbrush that blinks or plays music for two minutes.
Play their favorite song. The free app Brush DJ plays tunes in your library for two minutes and – bonus – lets you set reminders to brush twice a day, floss, use a mouthwash, and visit the dentist.
Offer incentives. What kid doesn’t want to stay up a few minutes later at bedtime or be in charge of choosing the next movie for family night? Consider offering a simple reward or creating a rewards chart to encourage your little one to brush their pearly whites for two minutes. Don’t forget to praise them afterward for their amazing technique or super sparkly teeth.
TELL A STORY
It used to be a fight for Callie Rae McCarthy to get her 2- and 4-year-olds to brush. But when the Bloomfield, N.J., mom said there were animals hiding in their teeth, the kids popped their mouths wide open. Now, the children choose which animal to go after each night, and it darts all over the teeth and tongue while Callie Rae or her husband chases it with a toothbrush. In the end, she hands the brush to each child and tells them to finish the chase. “They laugh and they giggle — isn’t that just what we want with everything?” she says.
In fact, experts say using something relatable, like a story, is a great way to get reluctant brushers to participate. You can also try reading an age-appropriate book about taking care of your teeth or letting your child practice brushing their stuffed animal’s teeth.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOOL
Brushing and flossing can be difficult for little hands. Opt for age-appropriate tools, such as toddler toothbrushes, flossers without sharp edges, and power toothbrushes, which experts say mimic little circles for accurate brushing. “Small kids don’t have manual dexterity,” Kennerly says. “A power toothbrush gives kids the boost to get that plaque off.” Tip: If your child is hesitant to try one, let them feel the movement of the whirring bristles on the palm of their hand before starting. Also, let your child pick out their favorite toothbrush and favorite flavor of toothpaste.
“If you introduce flossing and brushing at a young age, kids will start to feel yucky if they don’t do it.”