How to brush and floss for your little one!

Let’s review together how to help your child with brushing, flossing, and maintaining good oral habits at home. Let’s start this week with a Q&A session based on some of the most common asked questions from parents.

Q: When should I start brushing my little oneʼs teeth?

A: As soon as their first tooth erupts. It is important to introduce toothbrushing early on, even if there is only one tooth to brush. You can also take a soft, damp washcloth, or silicone finger brush to brush your babyʼs gums and their first few teeth to remove oral bacteria after feedings. Doing this helps promote good oral habits and your baby will become accustomed to your fingers in their mouth at an early age.

Health teeth for your little ones
Q: How often should I brush my childʼs teeth? And for how long?

A: Remember the 2-RULE here. Twice a day, for 2 minutes! Brush in the morning after eating breakfast and immediately before bed. It is recommended for parents to help their child with brushing until they are 8-9 years old. Young children are still developing fine motor and dexterity skills, meaning they may miss important areas in the mouth that harbor bacteria. Holding a toothbrush, guiding it in the mouth, and applying the necessary pressure for effective plaque removal is hard work and takes time. Encourage your child to slow down with brushing and divide the mouth into 4 quadrants: the upper right, the upper left, the lower right, and the lower left. Spend about 30 seconds in each quadrant to equal 2 minutes of brushing. For babies and toddlers, 2 minutes may seem like a lifetime. Do your best to brush in small circles, angling the toothbrush towards the gumline, apply light pressure, and use your fingers to help retract their lips and cheeks to reach all tooth surfaces. The front surfaces of the top teeth and the chewing surfaces of the molars (back teeth) are some of the toughest to reach areas. By holding your little oneʼs top lip up, you should be able to reach these teeth better, and encourage your little one to start practicing saying “AAHH” to reach the back molars. These teeth have natural grooves that can easily trap food and bacteria which can lead to dental cavities. Brush these back molars with a “back and forth” motion so the toothbrush bristles work their way into the anatomy of the teeth.

Q: How do I brush my baby or young toddlerʼs teeth?

A: Great question. There is a good chance your little one will not enjoy you doing all the brushing and flossing and will want to take control. Let them give it a try. Then be sure to follow behind. Try laying your child on a flat surface and you stand behind or over top of them. Or have them lay their head in your lap while you are sitting. It is best to avoid standing directly in front because your wrist will limit you from mastering the circle motion and the technique becomes a bit awkward. Bonus - If you are standing over top or from behind, you are introducing the position they will be in during their first dental visit. If your little one has busy hands during your brushing and wants to continuously take charge, have an extra toothbrush to let them hold as a distraction while you have a turn. Remember, these are tips of advice. Stay persistent and you will find what works and does not work for you.

Q: How often should I replace my childʼs toothbrush?

A: At least every 3 months! It is recommended to either change your childʼs toothbrush every 3 months or tossing after being sick to reduce the risk of spreading viral and bacterial infections. By changing the toothbrush at least every 3 months, you are able to brush effectively and are less likely to damage your childʼs gums. If you notice your little one chewing on the toothbrush bristles often, you may want to consider replacing more frequently. Frayed, worn out bristles will be less effective at removing dental plaque. And remember, if plaque is not removed, the risk for developing cavities increases.

Q: When should I introduce flossing into our oral routine?

A: Once the teeth begin to touch. You may hear your dental provider say your childʼs contacts are now touching. This means there is less space between their teeth and as a result, the toothbrush bristles cannot reach the interproximal surfaces with brushing alone. By introducing flossing, you are able to help your child remove plaque from tight spaces and help reduce the chance for cavities developing between teeth. Flossing is often a new concept to introduce after brushing, therefore, it can be a new challenge. But it is important to start early, just like with brushing, so your child does not become afraid or uncomfortable. You donʼt have to wait until their teeth touch to introduce floss. The earlier the better, honestly. Prioritize flossing areas where the bristles from the toothbrush cannot reach, which are often times between the back teeth and the top front teeth. Grin dental flossers are a great way to introduce and help your child with flossing. Floss handles are less messy and fun to use. It is encouraged to help your child with flossing through the age of 10 or longer if using traditional string floss.

How to floss for your kids?
Q: Should I choose a toothpaste with or without fluoride?

A: Your preference. Fluoride is a naturally-occurring mineral that is added to some toothpastes to help fight against dental cavities and helps remineralize weakened enamel surfaces. Based on existing research, fluoride in toothpaste is safe for all ages, however the amount varies. For children under 3 years old, it is recommended to only use a smear or rice-grain amount of fluoridated toothpaste (morning and evening). For children 3-6 years old, the recommended amount of fluoridated toothpaste increases only slightly to a pea-sized amount (morning and evening). Whether you choose a toothpaste with or without fluoride, brushing is about the mechanical action, meaning when you brush your childʼs teeth in small circles and along the gum line, you are helping disrupt plaque accumulation.

Q: How can I help motivate my child to brush and floss?

A: Lead by example. Make it fun. Reward good behavior. If your little one watches you engage in good oral habits, you are helping set the example by taking care of your teeth. Kids love to model after those they love and look up to. Make it fun and reward good behavior. Take the Grin Kids Brushing Challenge and watch your little one become excited about oral health by brushing and placing a sticker in the AM and PM box as a reward. Now that weʼve answered some of the most common questions about brushing and flossing, letʼs review specific techniques behind the two.

Abby, RDH, has created a fabulous brushing and flossing tutorial video with examples and visuals of how you as a parent can help.

Tips and tricks to get the job done ‒ HAPPILY and EFFECIENTLY!

  1. Brush in circles and along the gum line.
  2. Brush with ease and light pressure. Baby and childrenʼs gums can be sensitive, especially when teething. Use your fingers to help retract their lips and cheeks.
  3. Introduce flossing early on, or at least once your childʼs teeth begin to touch. Plaque attaches to the tooth, so be sure your floss reaches here too! Think of “hugging” the tight spaces and gliding the floss along those surfaces. Also, the floss should reach the gumline, meaning it goes past the contact point of where the teeth begin to touch. You may hear your dental provider suggest “c-shaped flossing” which is the same as this flossing technique.
  4. After brushing at bedtime, try to not let your child have anything to drink unless it is water.
  5. If your little one is excited to give brushing a try on their own, let them! Just be sure you are following behind.
  6. If your little one is hesitant with brushing and flossing, sing a song to help distract them.
  7. There is a very good chance your oral routine will not be easy. Be persistent. Donʼt give up.


About the author

Kristen Cockrell, BS, RDH, Dental Hygiene Education Masters Candidate 2021, Graduate Teaching Assistant, UNC Adams School of Dentistry, Division of Comprehensive Oral Health