Tips for Children’s Dental Month

tips for kids how to brush the teeth right

By Monica Guthrie

February is children’s dental month so let’s chat about dental care for children. Luckily for me, a good friend of mine, Eric Sexton, is a dentist in Oklahoma – so anytime I have a question or a concern about me or my family he just says, “Let me take a look.” Super convenient right?!?! These are the kinds of friends you want - plus his wife makes an awesome pesto pasta (delicious!).

Infant care

I remember when I was a new mom (I still feel like a new mom) and I didn’t know how to take care of my newborn’s teeth – or if I should be taking care of his gums before the teeth even show up. Dr. Sexton says the best prep is through diet and by parents caring for their own teeth.

“The baby’s mouth will be colonized by the same bacteria that are in the parents’ mouths, so keeping the cavity causing bacteria to a minimum through good habits does the same for the baby,” said Sexton.

Dr. Sexton explains that a baby is born without bacteria and whatever mouth bacteria get into the baby’s mouth first are the ones that will be most firmly entrenched in the child’s life.

“Those initial bacteria come from mom and dad almost invariably,” he said. “This colonization can be from any contact that follows from the parent's saliva to the baby's mouth: kissing, checking a bottle's temperature, fingers in mouths, whatever. If the parents have tons of cavities, plaque everywhere, gum disease, etc., then those same strains of bacteria will find their way in to baby's mouth. There are a lot of factors at play in getting cavities, but a major link is which strains colonize the child's mouth first.”

When should children start brushing?

But when should parents start bushing their children’s teeth? What do I use? Do I get a giant toothbrush? Should I get the little ones? What about toothpaste? There are so many things to think about! Sexton says it’s not that difficult. Parents should start with washing their baby’s gums with a soft, damp, clean washcloth – and then continue even after the teeth start coming in.

“Once a few teeth come in, you can graduate to a baby-sized toothbrush and use up to a rice-grain dab of toothpaste,” said Sexton. “Floss very gently as the child is cooperative. Let a dentist demonstrate how to do it on a child or give advice if the child isn't cooperative.”

What toothpaste do I use?

Then comes the question – do I get fluoride toothpaste? Unfluoridated? Will my child digest all the toothpaste and have to go to the emergency room to have his stomach pumped (was I the only parent who freaked out about everything? Nope? Just me? Oh well!). Sexton says as long the amount is very tiny, fluoride toothpaste is fine – but so is unfluoridated toothpaste.

“After about age 3, it is probably time to switch to a toothpaste that contains fluoride if you haven't already,” said Sexton. “For brushes, make sure the bristles are soft, the brush part is small, and the handle is thick enough for the child to use. The reason for this is that kids have lower dexterity than their parents, so parents should be brushing for their kids until around age 8. Kids can brush too, but only after their parents do it.”

Other common mistakes

Age 8?!? Whoa… didn’t see that coming. Good to know, but it did make me wonder what other mistakes I might be making. Dr. Sexton says common mistakes include not enforcing good brushing habits, eating carbs (sweets, milk, etc.,) after brushing but before bed and irregular dental visits.

Sexton said scaring children about dental visits are also barriers to good dental care.

“Don’t scare the child concerning the dentist,” he said. “The invasive, vulnerable nature of a dental visit is uncomfortable enough without the parent telling scary stories.”

What about braces

Braces are almost a rite-of-passage for many children, so when should I consider braces for my child? Dr. Sexton says the right age will vary depending on the child's teeth and how they fit together. Different providers will have differing opinions on this, but usually it's best to wait until all of the baby teeth are gone and the permanent teeth are in said Sexton.

“This can most certainly vary, though, depending on the reason the child needs the braces,” said Sexton. “As far as options, again, it depends on how severe the malocclusion, or bad bite or teeth alignment, is. Sometimes the problems are just in the teeth with a space/tooth size mismatch, and sometimes the issues are skeletal and require very specialized intervention.”

That means something like Invisalign or comparable product isn't going to be best in some of those situations, even if it looks pretty and is the “latest thing," he said.

As with all things, it is best to talk with your dentist and/or orthodontist about any concerns and possible solutions. Please also check Tips to Motivate Your Children To Brush Their Teeth


Monica K. Guthrie is an Army brat, an Army veteran (Rock of the Marne!) and now an Army spouse with two boys. She is currently the media relations officer for the public affairs office at Fort Sill, Okla., and writes a weekly column called the Okie Bucket List. She also has a photography and graphic design business, Pro Deo Creations, that she maintains between potty training and kissing scraped knees. 

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