As soon as baby teeth begin to break through, parents should begin to brush teeth twice a day. Tooth decay in toddlers is a real possibility if proper care is not provided for teeth from the start. Decay is the primary chronic illness in children and the reason for more than 51 million school hours lost each year. Having healthy teeth puts young children in a better position to feel ready to learn, prevent speech delays, chew food properly and grow healthy self-esteem. It even paves the way for healthy adult teeth placement. Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Let your child see you brushing your own teeth and start this young (as soon as they can track and see you from about 3-4 feet). This normalizes the experience for your child. Babies can be very intrigued with not only the sound of brushing teeth, but the action and motions required to brush your teeth. Having your child watch you brush your teeth in the earliest months of their life will contribute to an easier adoption of the practice as the first teeth erupt.
  1. Wipe your baby’s gums every day with a soft wash cloth or gauze after feeding. This should be a very gentle action. Your goal is to wipe down the gums and have your baby become accustomed to the action of wiping. This will set your child up for comfort when transitioning to a brush.
  1. Create a positive experience. As long as your baby is having fun, they will take to the experience and with time, let you brush their teeth. Don’t pressure yourself to accomplish full-scale tooth brushing in one day. Here is a simple step-by-step guide. Consider spending more days on each step, depending on how your child responds.
    Step one: Let your baby feel the toothbrush and become familiar with it. Make sure that you are doing this activity in the bathroom so your baby understands the correlation between the space you’re in and the appropriate action.
    Step two: Introduce a damp toothbrush to your baby’s mouth with no toothpaste. Try just a couple seconds of brushing.
    Step three: Apply the recommended amount of toothpaste (a smear of toothpaste for toddlers 1-2 years old, and a pea-sized amount for children 3-5 years old) and do a short, quick brush.
    Step four: Same as step three but brush for longer.
  1. Give them something to look forward to while brushing. Your child may benefit from playing with a small toy that is only provided to them during toothbrush time. This keeps them occupied and distracted enough from using their hands to push away the toothbrush. The toy can be incredibly simple.
  1. Incorporate music, if you are experiencing challenges. Sometimes doing an activity together in a group is helpful for children. If you have another adult or older child in the household, ask them to brush their teeth at the same time as you are assisting your young child. You can start by saying “let’s all brush our teeth together” as you walk to the bathroom singing a simple toothbrush song to make the process more fun. You can sing a simple tune using the words “brusha brusha brusha” or you could use an existing tune from a nursery rhyme with new words. For example “brush, brush, brush our teeth, brushing’s really fun” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Kavita Bernstein Tooth brushing is a critical habit and skill to develop in your child’s early years that supports academic success –something to truly smile about!

Kavita Bernstein is a Health Program Specialist at First Things First. She can be reached at

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