Brushing Baby Teeth: When to Start, How to Do It, and More

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

There are so many milestones for parents to keep track of in the first year of their baby’s life: first smile, first word, first time crawling, first solid food, and of course, the emergence of your little one’s first tooth. As sad as it can be to think of your baby growing up, it’s exciting to see all the new developments in their life.

One event that frequently fails to make the cut in baby scrapbooks though is the first time brushing their teeth. Signs of little teeth popping through the gum line can melt your heart, but do you know the recommendations for how to protect those baby teeth and promote good dental health? Don’t worry if the answer is no, just keep reading…

When should you begin brushing baby teeth?

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It may be tempting to delay worrying about your little one’s smile until they have a mouthful of teeth, but caring for their oral hygiene should begin much earlier than that. You don’t even need to wait until the first tooth has emerged above the gum line to set your baby up for dental success!

When your baby’s mouth is just a gummy smile, you can use a wet soft cloth or a finger brush to wipe their gums and remove bacteria. This helps to prevent damage to their baby teeth as they begin to arrive and has the added benefit of getting them accustomed to having their mouth brushed.

As soon as teeth begin appearing above the gum line, it’s recommended that you make sure to brush your child’s teeth at least twice a day. (One of those times should be after their last meal and before bed to avoid allowing food or milk to sit in their mouth overnight!)

This is also a good time to progress from a washcloth or finger brush to a child-sized brush with soft bristles, so you can keep your fingers a little further away from those razor-sharp new incisors!

How do you brush baby’s teeth?

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Before your child has teeth. You can begin brushing your baby’s gums with just a washcloth and some water or a finger brush and some water.

Gently wipe all around the gums and make sure to get under the lip region to help reduce bacteria build-up!

After your child has teeth, but before they can spit. Use a damp brush to make gentle circles on the front, back, and top surfaces of all teeth and along the gum line. You may opt to use a smear of toothpaste about the size of a grain of rice for children under 3.

Help your child angle their mouth down so the toothpaste can dribble out into the sink, a cup, or onto a washcloth. Encourage your child to try spitting the toothpaste out as they are able.

What about fluoride?

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Fluoride toothpaste is recommended by the American Dental Association as safe and effective even for young children. It is important, however, to use the recommended amounts. If this amount of fluoride is consumed it should not have negative effects. Consuming more than this may result in an upset stomach. (If this happens, the National Capital Poison Center suggests consuming dairy as this can bind with the fluoride in the stomach.)

Over time excessive fluoride consumption can also damage tooth enamel, so there’s no need to introduce it until the first tooth has appeared above the gum line. Before then you can stick to water and a washcloth or finger brush.

For children under age 3, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest only using a small smear of fluoride toothpaste that is approximately the size of a grain of rice. As your child becomes able, encourage them to spit out the toothpaste and avoid swallowing it.

For children ages 3 to 6, the AAP suggests a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste making sure to encourage swallowing as little as possible of the toothpaste.

What if they hate it?

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If you find that your little one is less than thrilled when it’s time to clean their mouth you’re definitely not alone. Before you throw out all the toothbrushes in your house in frustration, give these tricks a try:

  • Try counting or a special tooth brushing song to help the 2 minutes pass by quickly (e.g. “Brush, Brush, Brush Your Teeth” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”). A visual timer can also make it easier for your child to see how quickly the seconds are counting down until teeth brushing is over.
  • Consider investing in a light up or motorized toothbrush to make the activity a little more fun. (Bonus that these are frequently set to operate for 2 minutes at a time so no need for you to worry about how long your child has been brushing!)
  • Practice taking turns with the toothbrush. Independent toddlers love doing things themselves, and it can certainly make toothbrushing time more fun. Just make sure that you get a turn too, so that you can guarantee their teeth are good and clean. It’s important to participate in cleaning your child’s teeth until they can thoroughly do so themselves.
  • Rewards for consistency and progress in brushing their own teeth can inspire a little extra effort and a better attitude at the end of the day! These can be tailored in whatever way makes the most sense for you and your child.

Takeaway

You can start to plant the seeds of good dental health long before your child is even old enough to spit out toothpaste. (There’s no need to wait for a mouthful of teeth to start brushing!)

Like many things in life, practice makes perfect, so it may take some time and patience to perfect their tooth brushing routine. Take comfort though that when your little one has a sparkling smile later in life, you’ll both be grateful for your hard work and perseverance caring for their dental health!

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