I hate to admit it, but I don’t brush my baby’s teeth very often. Bedtime is challenging enough without the battle I have to fight to brush his teeth! I have to hold him down, and he cries and screams the entire time that I have a brush in his mouth. I figure that baby teeth just fall out anyway, so it’s not a big deal, right?
~ Amelia, mom of 18-month-old Xander
Actually, it is a big deal. Even though baby teeth aren’t permanent, they do have a permanent effect on your little one’s health and development. The minute that first tooth pops out — whether your baby is four months old or 14 months old — it’s important that you brush your baby’s teeth. Some dentists even recommend cleaning the gums before any teeth erupt.
Why Baby Teeth are so Important
- Baby teeth act as placeholders that ensure proper spacing and alignment of permanent teeth as they come in.
- Baby teeth are an important part of language development, ensuring proper jaw and tongue development and movements for speaking.
- Healthy baby teeth enable a child to eat the healthful foods so necessary for development.
- Proper daily care of baby teeth prevents the possibility of childhood tooth decay or periodontal disease.
- Improper care of baby teeth could cause early loss of those teeth and problems with the permanent teeth that replace them.
- Baby teeth are often not completely replaced by permanent teeth until age 13 or 14, that’s a long time for your baby to use the set that he has now!
Given the importance of baby teeth, brushing them every day is vital to your child’s health. To make the task less stressful — maybe even pleasant — try some of the following ideas:
- Make tooth brushing a part of your routine. Do it at the same time every night, such as right after putting on pajamas, and as part of your morning routine, such as right after you get dressed.
- Use a small brush. While using a bigger brush may seem more efficient, it’s the equivalent of sticking a hairbrush in your mouth: big and overwhelming! Instead, opt for the special tiny brushes made especially for babies and toddlers. Choose a soft-bristled brush to prevent hurting your baby’s gums. If even a baby toothbrush seems to be too much (such as for a very small baby, or a baby who sprouts teeth very early) simply use a piece of gauze or a wet cloth to wipe the teeth and gums. You can also purchase a baby finger brush (it looks like a finger off a rubber glove with bristles).
- Use only a tiny dot of toothpaste. Too much can be unpleasant (and unhealthy) for your baby, and a small bit does the job.
- Use a tooth cleanser made especially for babies. Such products are gentle on baby teeth, pleasant tasting, non-foaming, and safe to swallow. Products that contain fluoride should not be swallowed since they can cause white spots on teeth, and your child won’t learn to “spit” until much later. (Well…I mean learn to spit toothpaste out until much later.)
- Experiment with different types of toothbrushes and toothpastes. Search out colorful, musical toothbrushes, or those with playful designs. Try an electric or battery-powered brush made especially for children; these do a great job of cleaning teeth, and your little one may enjoy the buzzing sound and tingly feeling. If you have several brushes, let your little one choose which brush to use each time.
- Be creative.
- Pretend the toothbrush is a train and the teeth, a track. Make enthusiastic train noises.
- Give the toothbrush and teeth voices and have them talk to each other.
- Pretend to be “hunting” for bits of food from the day and make a big production about each speck you find.
- Make up a toothbrushing song, or use a variation of a favorite: “This is the way we brush our teeth…” … “ Twinkle, twinkle little teeth…”
- Tell a story that is completely disassociated with the tooth-brushing to take your child’s mind off the process: “Once upon a time a little boy named Sam went to the beach…”
- Brush your child’s teeth while she’s watching her favorite video movie or TV show.
- After you brush his teeth, or before you get started, let your little one do it himself. He’ll most likely just chew on the brush, but it will help him feel like he has some control over the situation. Plus, it will help him get used to having the brush in his mouth. Don’t let your baby walk around with a brush in his mouth, though — he could fall and injure himself.
- Brush together and take advantage of your little one’s desire to imitate your actions. You might even take turns brushing each other’s teeth.
- Try brushing in front of a mirror so that your baby can see what’s happening. Letting your little one sit on the bathroom counter and look into the wall mirror is often exciting enough to keep him from squirming too much.
Take your baby in for a dental checkup between age one and three. Call your dentist for more information, since your dentist, or your pediatrician, can tell you at what age to make this first appointment. In the meantime, your pediatrician can check your baby’s teeth during regular appointments. You might also add the “dentist” game to your play from time to time so that your little one won’t be so frightened at his very first dental appointment.
The bottom line is: Just do it. If none of these ideas helps, you’ll just have to hold your baby in your lap and be thankful that she cries with her mouth open! I know that sounds awful, but the displeasure you have to deal with over toothbrushing is infinitely less than that of watching your toddler in the dentist chair screaming while she has cavities filled, or worse yet, suffering through surgery because of decayed teeth.
For more information
American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry
American Dental Association
The Canadian Dental Association