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When and how to start teaching your kids about oral hygiene

Sometimes our dentists have had to fix very young children’s teeth in theatre under anaesthesia because of very bad tooth decay. This can be prevented by following Loock Dental’s advice for teaching children oral hygiene, and remembering that regular annual checkups with your dentist should start as early as possible.

We’ve included some fantastic online resources throughout this post, so be sure to read all the way through!

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, ‘strong oral care helps set good dental habits as your child grows. Poor oral care can lead to infection, disease, or other teeth problems.’ From a holistic perspective, this affects your child’s overall health too. 

Do milk teeth matter?

Your child’s first teeth, also known as ‘milk’, ‘baby’ or ‘primary’ teeth, will usually start popping up when your child is between 4 and 7 months old. They will have all arrived by the time your child is around 2 1/2 – 3 years old, though every child’s timing is slightly different, according to the South African Pedodontics Society.

Milk teeth are not permanent, so many parents make the mistake of ignoring discolouration or cavities, thinking these teeth will just be falling out anyway. This is not a good idea. It is in fact very important to protect and care for your child’s first teeth from the beginning, as they act as place holders for the permanent teeth. Losing them too soon because of a cavity or abscess can lead to permanent teeth being crowded or crooked. Gum health is also something to consider even before the teeth appear.

Cavities in milk teeth can also lead to decay and damage of the emerging permanent tooth below and this can be tricky to detect and fix quickly. Root canal treatments performed on milk teeth can also damage the tooth below, and so are best avoided. 

When should I book my child’s first dentist appointment?

The South African Pedodontics Society recommend that you start taking your child to the dentist for regular check-ups from the time your toddler has all their milk teeth, around 2 1/2, rather than waiting for the first sign of a problem. Other professional bodies, such as the American Dental Association advise taking your child to the dentist at around their first birthday, so that they can sit on your lap and have a modified oral examination, and the dentist will help demonstrate correct flossing and brushing techniques.

At early dental checkups, we would aim to help your child get used to routine oral examination with gentle treatments such as cleaning, without the first visit having the potential trauma of a more major, sometimes painful procedure. Apparently most children who develop a fear of dentists had a treatment done on their first visit.

Of course, at Loock Dental we always try to ensure a gentle and positive experience for all our patients, especially young ones, but we would encourage children to, where possible, avoid starting their relationship with us with an uncomfortable procedure.

We recommend making your first visit to the dentist a happy, calm one by preparing your child beforehand with a special video like this one, or by reading a picture book together like the ones on this great list.

Routine checks also help your dentist detect, treat, or avert potential problems early on, preventing the need for more expensive major treatments and the loss or damage of either a milk or permanent tooth.

Life hack:  Set a recurring reminder in your phone calendar to book a dental appointment for your child twice a year, and take the guesswork out of the equation!

How do I care for my young child’s teeth?

Your child’s oral hygiene routine should start as soon as teeth begin to peek through those little gums. The big differences between your oral hygiene routine and your child’s are in the type of toothbrush and toothpaste you use for little children. Otherwise the basics are the same: brush twice a day, and when brushing at night, wait until after all eating and drinking (except water).

It is best to buy both toothbrushes and toothpastes that are specially designed for children by a reputable brand. Most are labelled with the appropriate ages for each phase of childhood tooth development. Adult toothbrushes are too big to fit comfortably in your child’s mouth or effectively move around the little teeth, and the bristles are too hard.

Allow your child to choose their own toothbrush, and make this a fun event. They can choose a brush in a favourite colour or with a popular character or animal on it. Toothbrushes should be replaced every 2-3 months, or as soon as the bristles start looking worn, and should be cleaned after each use.

Children’s toothpastes are also made with carefully measured amounts of fluoride, for safety reasons. Baby toothpastes do not usually contain fluoride because children under 3 tend to struggle to rinse and spit and could swallow toothpaste. Before age 3, teach your child to spit out the toothpaste, and wait until they are older before introducing a cup of water for rinsing.

Fluoride swallowed in large enough quantities is poisonous, so adult or even older children’s toothpaste is not safe for a toddler to use. A rice-grain sized amount of toothpaste should be sufficient for brushing a baby or toddler’s teeth, and as they get older you move to a pea-sized amount (which is also the amount an adult needs).

Flossing should start as soon as your child has any teeth that touch each other. Very young children do not have the coordination needed to brush and floss properly on their own, and usually need help from their parents until at least age 7 or 8. You can get floss on a handle if you find the rolls of floss difficult to manage with a younger child.

The South African Pedodontics Society recommend a TELL-SHOW-DO approach:

  1. Tell your children why we brush our teeth, how often, and how to do it properly. Children tend to be more co-operative if they understand why they are being asked to do something.
  2. Show your children how to brush – children typically learn by example and demonstration. A specially designed egg-timer for tooth brushing is a fun way to keep an eye on whether they are brushing for long enough, or you can play a favourite song that lasts two minutes, to help them get the feel for the proper timing. Another cool trick for older children is to ask your dentist for special little pink pills which temporarily make your teeth pink until you’ve brushed them properly. This can really show them which bits they might be neglecting!
  3. Let them do the brushing for themselves, with your supervision. Try to avoid turning this good habit into a battle ground and getting angry if they do it wrong. It’s important to keep this self care routine as positive as you can to encourage them to keep it up.

Are there any special differences between the teeth of primary school aged children, teens and adults?

Children start to lose their milk or baby teeth as young as 6 years old, and then permanent teeth start to show up. The last baby teeth will have fallen out by the time your child is about 12.

This means that in their primary school years, your child will have a mix of permanent and milk teeth in their mouths, with occasional gaps and loose teeth that still need careful brushing and flossing. You should also teach your child to brush their tongues to reduce the amount of bacteria in their mouths.

Apart from ensuring they don’t avoid cleaning loose teeth because of the discomfort, and ensuring they move on to age-appropriate toothpastes containing fluoride, there are no major differences in oral hygiene at this time.

Resources for encouraging happy, healthy oral hygiene habits in kids

  1. Here are some great resources Loock Dental have found to help encourage children to develop good oral hygiene habits: For free songs about keeping teeth healthy, in English and Afrikaans, click here.
  2. For free colouring pages on happy healthy teeth, try this page.
  3. For great ideas, printable worksheets and games on Pinterest before or after your visit to the dentist, try this mom’s cool board.
  4. For an awesome activity on cleaning teeth, try making this whiteboard activity for your kids. It can be used to teach dental vocabulary before a dentists’ visit, or just the alphabet (for younger children you could just get them to scribble and wipe clean, and use this as a way to teach about oral hygiene). 

The importance of diet and avoiding baby bottle mouth

An essential part of oral hygiene is a healthy diet, low in sugary foods and drinks. When it comes to children, a natural preference for sweeter foods and our association of sweet foods with childhood treats, rewards and fun, means we need to pay extra attention to how sugars affect our children’s teeth. For more information on food that will keep your smile bright, read our previous post here.

Even cows’ milk, vegan nut milks, health smoothies and baby formula contain natural sugars, and letting your baby or toddler go to sleep sucking on a bottle can harm their teeth. The liquid can pool behind the baby’s teeth for hours and damage the protective enamel. This is the cause of what is known as ‘bottle mouth’ or ‘baby bottle tooth decay.’ 

It is best to switch a child to a sippy cup with a hard spout or straw, which they should have the coordination to manage on their own from around their first birthday.

Talk to your child about how what they eat and drink affects their health and their teeth in a positive way from the start, and take a look at this cute idea for teaching your child about foods that are harmful vs foods that are healthy for their teeth.

We hope this information helps you take great care of your child’s oral hygiene needs. Please contact Loock Dental right away if:

  1. Your child has tooth pain or an infection/ bleeding in their gums.
  2. Your child loses a permanent tooth. Put the tooth in milk and bring it with you to the practice, in case we can reattach it.
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Marguerite MacRobert

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