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Healthy teeth and gums are vital to your child’s general health. You can get your child off to a great start by cleaning her teeth twice a day and flossing regularly.
Boy brushing teeth

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Cleaning and caring for children’s teeth early on sets up good dental habits for life, and creates good dental patients.
 

Teeth development

Baby teeth can arrive in any order, although the central bottom teeth are often first. Most children have a full set of 20 baby teeth by the time they’re three years old.

 

The 32 adult teeth replace the baby teeth between the ages of 6 and 20 years. The adult teeth don’t get replaced, so you have to look after them.

Cleaning your child’s teeth

The first step is choosing the right toothbrush – one designed especially for children aged 2-5 years. These toothbrushes have small oval heads, soft bristles of different heights and a non-slip, cushioned handle. They also often have cartoons and fun designs on the handle, which might appeal to your child.

The novelty of electric toothbrushes might also appeal to your child. Some electric toothbrushes can give a slightly better clean than manual brushes, but it’s best to go with what your child prefers.

Brush your child’s teeth twice a day – morning and night. From his preschool years on, encourage him to rinse his mouth with water after lunch and snacks.

Have a chat with your dentist about the need to floss your child’s teeth.

The best way to clean your child’s teeth
You might like to try the following routine when brushing your child’s teeth:
  1. Stand or sit behind your child so she feels secure. Being in front of a mirror is good too, because it lets you see your child’s mouth.
  2. Cup your child’s chin in your hands, with her head resting against your body.
  3. Angle the bristles of the toothbrush towards the gum. Move the brush in gentle circles to clean the outer and inner sides of the teeth and gums. Lift your child’s lips to brush the front and back of the teeth and at the gum line.
  4. Brush back and forth on the chewing surfaces of the teeth.
  5. Gently brush your child’s tongue.

If you’re using an electric toothbrush, avoid moving the brush in circles. Keep your hand still, and guide the brush across your child’s teeth and gums.

Your child might want to start helping to clean his own teeth. Letting him hold the toothbrush with you will help him feel he’s part of the action. But your child will need your help and supervision with cleaning teeth until he’s about eight years old.

Kids don’t always like having their teeth cleaned, but they’re more likely to go along with it if you can make it fun. You could try singing ‘This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth, so early in the morning’. Another idea is pretend the toothbrush is a train, saying ‘Toot toot chugga chugga’ as you move it around your child’s mouth.
Toothpaste and fluoride
Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay and helps build strong teeth and bones. If children take in too much fluoride, it can cause ‘fluorosis’, which is a build-up of white marks on the teeth. Although this affects the appearance of the teeth, it doesn’t usually affect health.

Most tap water in Australia has added fluoride. Fluoride is considered safe and beneficial for strong teeth. In fact, fluoride works best when it’s taken in very small amounts throughout the day via sources such as fluoridated tap water, foods and drinks containing fluoride, and low-fluoride toothpaste.

You can start using a low-fluoride toothpaste on your child’s toothbrush from 18 months of age. You need to use only a pea-sized amount of low-fluoride toothpaste. Encourage your child to spit the toothpaste out as you clean. She doesn’t need to rinse with water, though. The small amount of fluoridated toothpaste still in her mouth will help build strong, healthy teeth.

Teeth cleaning alone isn’t a guarantee against tooth decay – diet is also important to your child’s oral health. For more information, you can read our article on preventing tooth decay.

Keeping the toothbrush clean
After cleaning your child’s teeth and gums, rinse the toothbrush with tap water.

Store the toothbrush upright in an open container to allow it to air-dry. If other family members’ toothbrushes are stored in the same place, make sure the brushes don’t touch. This reduces the risk that decay-causing germs will travel between brushes and into your child’s mouth. And no sharing when it comes to toothbrushes! One for each family member is best.

Toothbrushes should be replaced every 3-4 months, or when the bristles get worn or frayed.

Cleaning and caring for children’s teeth early on sets up good dental habits for life and creates good dental patients.

Thumb-sucking

Sucking thumbs or fingers is a natural reflex in babies and young children. Most children grow out of sucking their thumbs or fingers around 2-4 years of age.

Vigorous finger-sucking (that’s when you can hear a popping sound when a child takes his thumb or fingers out of his mouth) and prolonged sucking (over many years) can affect the growth of a child’s jaws and the alignment of teeth. If you’re concerned about your child’s sucking habits, talk to your dentist.

Children are more likely to suck their thumb or fingers when they’re tired, stressed or hungry.

Teeth-grinding

Teeth-grinding in preschoolers is pretty common and doesn’t usually need treatment.

Some children clench their jaws quite firmly, and others grind their teeth so hard that it makes a noise. Some children grind their teeth during sleep. Often, they don’t wake up when they do it – but other people do!

Most of the time, teeth-grinding doesn’t last and doesn’t cause damage to your child’s teeth. But if it does keep going, you might want to talk to a dentist. It could lead to your child experiencing headaches, tooth or jaw pain, or wearing down her teeth.

Injuries to teeth

Injuries to your preschooler’s face and teeth can occur when he’s running, climbing, riding scooters and bikes and all the rest. It’s a good idea to see a doctor or dentist if your child damages his teeth or face.

If your child knocks out a baby tooth, don’t try and put it back in, because this can cause problems later on when the adult tooth starts to come through. Losing a baby tooth before it’s ready to come out usually isn’t a serious dental problem, but it’s important that you take your child to the dentist immediately for a check-up. Seeing the dentist and knowing that an adult tooth will eventually fill the space – and that any pain or tenderness will soon go – can help reassure you and your child.

Visiting the dentist

Children should have an oral health assessment by the time they’re two. This lets your child get to know the dentist. It also gives you and your dentist a chance to talk about your child’s needs and plan how often your child should have her teeth checked.

Your child might not always see a dentist – many other ‘oral health professionals’ are fully qualified to work on your child’s teeth, depending on your child’s needs. They include dental therapists, dental hygienists and oral health therapists.

Public dental care
Dental care for children is often free in the public dental system, up to a certain age. Contact your local public dental provider for details.

Private dental care
There are private dental clinics all over Australia. You’ll have to pay for your appointments, but people with private health insurance might receive a rebate after attending.

Video: Caring for your child's teeth

Download Video  9mb
This short video shows you how to care for children’s teeth. It includes advice on encouraging children to drink tap water, brushing children’s teeth as soon as the first ones are through, and avoiding sugary drinks. Parents also talk about how important it is to avoid giving your child a bottle of milk in bed.
 
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  • Last Updated 27-01-2012
  • Last Reviewed 27-01-2012
  • Acknowledgements Raising Children Network would like to thank Martine Calache, Professor Hanny Calache and Susanne Sofronoff of Dental Health Services Victoria for their help in reviewing and writing this article.
  • Dental Health Services Victoria (2011). Oral health promotion: A resource for children’s services. Retrieved July 20, 2011, http://www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-resources/guides-and-resources/#Teeth.

    Dental Health Services Victoria (2011). Teeth: Oral health information for maternal and child health nurses. Retrieved July 20, 2011, from http://www.dhsv.org.au/oral-health-resources/guides-and-resources/#Teeth.

    Mindell, J.A., & Owens, J.A. (2010). Bruxism. In J.A. Mindell & J.A. Owens (Eds). A clinical guide to pediatric sleep: Diagnosis and management of sleep problems (2nd edn, pp. 90-94). Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

    National Oral Health Clearing House (2011). Oral health messages for the Australian public. Australian Dental Journal, 56(3), 331-335.