Six ways to encourage healthy dental habits in your children

Want to help your children start a lifetime of good dental habits? Here’s six ways you can encourage them to take care of their teeth and gums.  

It’s not always easy to get your child enthusiastic about taking good care of their teeth. In fact, enforced daily teeth brushing can quickly become a chore for you both. But there are plenty of good reasons why it’s important to instil good dental habits in our children (and several of them are in your child’s mouth!).

However, there are some very simple things you can do that will ensure that good dental practice – from brushing correctly to visiting the dentist regularly – becomes a habit for them.

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Six ways to encourage healthy dental habits in your children

So, to help give your children the best toothy start in life, here are six ways to encourage healthy dental habits.

1) Register with a dentist early – and go!

To kick start good habits, register your child with a dentist early, and ensure that you keep your appointments. It’s important for a dentist to keep track of how your child’s teeth are growing and developing. It also means you’ll catch any need for braces early.

Most children have braces between the ages of 11-14 years, depending on their dental development. However, a small percentage need early interceptive treatment (phase one). This makes any any orthodontics in their early teen years (phase two) much easier.

Why might they need a brace so early? Thumb sucking, small lower or upper jaws or very protrusive upper front teeth are all common reasons for interceptive orthodontic treatment around the ages of 7-10 years old. This is also a good reason why you should try to deter children from making a habit of thumb sucking or using dummies!

Orthodontics for children is extremely important as straighter teeth are easier to keep clean, reducing the risk of long term gum disease and dental decay. And forget the hideous head braces of the 1980s. Today your child now has several different brace options which are virtually invisible – from tooth coloured ceramic braces to clear Invisalign aligners (Invisalign Teen).

2) Motivate them to brush regularly

If your child is young, they may be more motivated by visual aids, such as stickers or gold stars on a chart, to brush their teeth regularly. And to make sure they’re brushing for long enough (around 2-3 minutes), you could use an egg timer or a timed flashing toothbrush.

Why not make teeth brushing a group activity? Children may be more likely to join in if they see the grownups brushing, so try and brush together in the morning or before bed time. And don’t forget to praise them for healthy habits, giving them lots of smiles, clapping and ‘well dones’.

3) Get them used to visiting the dentist (and avoid the fear factor)

Parents and dentists each play an important role in making a child’s first dental appointment a positive experience – one that may set the tone for the feelings about visiting the dentist for the rest of their life.

So make sure you visit the dentist with your child when they are as young as possible, and at least once by the time they are two. This way they can become familiar with the environment and get to know your dentist and build up trust – and your dentist can help to prevent decay and identify any health problems at an early stage.

If you hate going to the dentist yourself or feel anxious about it, try to keep those feelings hidden from your child as they will pick up on this, causing unnecessary fear. You should also avoid using words or phrases with negative connotations such as ‘it might hurt’ or ‘be painful’.

I also ask parents to avoid promising rewards for your child after visiting the dentist, as this detracts from the fact that it should be a normal routine experience. It shouldn’t be so bad that you need a bribe for going!

4) Make sure they know how to brush their teeth

It’s not just important that your child brushes their teeth regularly – they need to do it properly. Ideally they’ll brush them in a circular motion, holding their toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to ensure they are cleaning their gum as well as their teeth.

But make sure they don’t brush too hard, as this can wear away their gums. Use a mirror when teaching your children how to brush their teeth so they can perfect the technique they should be using.

Encourage them to spit out excess toothpaste, but don’t let them rinse their mouths with lots of water as this will wash away the fluoride, making it less effective. Also, ensure you change their toothbrush at least every two to three months. This will keep the brush of a high quality, allowing the bristles to clean the teeth and gums effectively, as well as keeping bacteria at bay.

And finally, remember to use age specific tooth pastes for your children. After the age of eight your child can use a pea-sized amount of adult toothpaste.

5) Help your children to brush their teeth independently

As soon as your children’s teeth start to erupt you need to start brushing them – this will help them get used to the routine and sensation.

To prepare them for independent brushing when the time is right, allow them to chew on rubber toothbrushes. This can help to make it less daunting when they switch to the real thing – plus it can help with teething.

Supervise tooth brushing until your child is seven or eight years old, either by brushing their teeth yourself or, if they brush their own teeth, watching how they do it. Ideally you should try and brush your children’s teeth for as long as they will allow you. (Remember you have better dexterity than them and will do a more thorough job.) It’s also important to remember the most important time for teeth brushing is the night time brush.

6) Teach them why good dental habits are important

Right from the start it’s a good idea to explain to your children why they need to brush their teeth and keep them healthy. This helps to give teeth brushing a purpose and encourages them to start thinking about dental health as early as possible.

Also monitor the consumption of fizzy drinks, acidic fruit juices and high sugar foods to ensure a happy and healthy mouth. Teaching them what they should and shouldn’t be eating and drinking will encourage healthy habits that will hopefully last them (and their teeth) a lifetime.

Dr Shivani Patel is the lead clinician at elleven Dental.