Brushing Baby's Teeth: What Parents Need to Know

February is Children's Dental Health Month. Here at Ready. Set. Food!, we want to help parents start baby’s dental health off strong.

When and how to brush baby's teeth --- and what to do if brushing becomes a struggle? We have all the answers for parents here.

As soon as your little one's first teeth start to poke through, you'll need to start brushing them. This will set up the foundations for a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums. But how to brush baby's teeth --- and what to do if brushing becomes a struggle? We have all the answers for parents here.

Before the teeth come in: Brushing the gums

Baby's first teeth usually come in between 4 and 7 months of age.

But even before the teeth emerge, you'll want to brush baby's gums daily, to keep the mouth healthy and get rid of bacteria.

Plus, gum brushing helps keep any teeth clean that have started to poke through, but that you haven't found yet. (This might also help baby get used to the idea of brushing!)

If baby doesn't have teeth yet, you don't need a regular toothbrush. Instead, gently brush the gums with a finger brush, or a soft and damp washcloth. You don't need toothpaste either --- just use water.

When baby's teeth come in: Why brushing is vital

Surprisingly, baby's teeth are vulnerable to plaque and decay right when they start coming in. Anything baby eats or drinks, besides breastmilk, can cause plaque to grow if it isn't cleaned off.

That's why the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends, "As soon as the teeth begin to appear, start brushing twice daily."

Even though baby teeth are designed to fall out eventually, and get replaced with adult teeth, they're still vital.

Baby teeth hold the space for adult teeth, so these permanent teeth can come in properly. If baby teeth are too decayed, this could cause the adult teeth to come in crooked.

And baby teeth are also vital for proper speech development.

Plus, not everyone loses all their baby teeth later on. Some people have certain baby teeth that remain in the mouth, and that don't get replaced by adult teeth.

How to brush baby's teeth

Have baby's teeth come in? Here's how to brush them:

Use a small toothbrush with soft bristles.

Pick one that's recommended for babies and toddlers, and that has 3 rows of bristles or fewer.

Use toothpaste from the beginning.

Yes, this may surprise you, but that's what the AAPD recommends.

Toothpaste isn't just recommended for toddlers age 2 and older anymore. Instead, start using toothpaste from the first time you brush baby's teeth.

Pick the right kind and amount of toothpaste.

For babies under the age of 2, the AAPD says you should use a small "smear" of toothpaste, moistened with a little water. This should be about the size of a grain of rice. Between age 2 and 3, you can move to a "pea-sized" amount of toothpaste (the same amount recommended for older kids and adults).

Choose a toothpaste with fluoride, which is designed for babies and toddlers.

(It's ok if baby swallows a little bit of fluoride toothpaste. You're using such a small amount of toothpaste that it's no cause for concern).

Brush twice a day.

Brush baby's teeth in the morning, and then again before bed (after their pre-bedtime meal).

If you’re bottle-feeding, don’t put baby to bed with a bottle, as this could cause tooth decay. Instead, give the bottle, brush baby’s teeth after you finish, then put them to bed.

Use a circular motion.

Brush the front, back, and top of each tooth by going in small circles. Don't miss the gum line! Be sure to brush the front of the tongue as well.

Brush each tooth for several seconds.

Then, as your little one gets older and more teeth come in, gradually work up to a 2-minute brushing time. (That's the healthy brushing time for a full mouth of teeth.)

Know when to swap out the brush.

Toss out and replace baby's toothbrush after 3 months, or when it looks rough at the edges (whichever comes first).

For more tips on brushing baby's teeth, watch this video from Mark Burhenne, DDS:

What if baby doesn't like brushing?

If baby cries during brushing, shuts their mouth at the sight of the toothbrush, or even tries to move away, what to do?

Don't wait it out for a few weeks or months, and hope that baby will tolerate the brushing then.

Starting early, and being persistent with brushing, is key to keeping baby's mouth healthy.

As Hurst Pediatric Dentistry explains, "Just as you wouldn’t give up on changing your baby’s soiled diapers if your baby wiggled and made diaper changes difficult, you should never give up on keeping your child’s mouth clean and free of disease."

So, if baby doesn't like brushing, don't give up! Instead, try some of our tips below.

Tips for brushing baby's teeth

      • Sing or play fun songs during the brushing.
        • Use one of baby's favorite songs, make up silly songs about brushing, or find a fun tooth brushing song on YouTube.
      • Tell funny stories as a distraction.
      • Pretend to "brush" a stuffed animal's teeth with your little one, before brushing your little one's teeth.
      • Try letting baby watch their teeth getting brushed in a mirror.
      • Choose a fun toothbrush with engaging colors and characters (just make sure it's age appropriate).
        • As your little one gets older, you can let them pick the brush.
      • If baby is interested in the brush, let them hold it, play with it, or even stick it in their own mouth.
      • Model brushing.
        • Brush your own teeth first --- and show how much you enjoy it.
        • Then say "your turn!" and start brushing their teeth.
      • Remember that if baby's teething, that might be why they don't want their teeth brushed. After all, teething makes the gums sore.
        • If you think teething is to blame, try switching back to a finger brush for a bit --- but this time, use toothpaste.
      • If baby is resistant even with distractions, ask for another adult's help.
        • Have one adult brush, while the other adult distracts baby and holds baby's hands as needed.
      • If your older baby or toddler wants to start brushing their own teeth, let them --- sort of.
        • Give them a turn. But then, brush as you normally would, to make sure their teeth are thoroughly cleaned.

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