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Supporting Your Child’s Oral Health – Encouraging Good Oral Health at Home

A child life specialist at Cook Children's shares how to encourage and practice oral health at home during National Children's Dental Health Month.

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's

How many times has your child told you that they brushed their teeth only to find a dry toothbrush when you inevitably go check? How many times did you tell your own parents that you brushed your teeth when you, in fact, did not? Brushing teeth might be the most lied about subject in my home. As far as I know, there has not been a research study on why children lie about brushing their teeth, but it seems to be a universal phenomenon.  Honestly, brushing your teeth is like any other good habit. It must be taught, practiced, and repeated to become a daily habit. Your children do not know or understand the long-term effects of not brushing their teeth, nor do they see an immediate reward for brushing. For all of us, not practicing good oral health has its consequences at least once every six months if you are seeing a dentist. The lack of good oral health can lead to long-term health consequences and years of dental work that can not only be painful but costly. However, children do not have the forethought to know this or the ability to understand it.

This is why it is so important to establish good oral health habits at home. Good oral health is crucial to your child’s overall health and development. As parents, the way we approach oral health in the home can help to establish life-long habits for our children. While it can be difficult and time-consuming to help your children brush their teeth daily, it is a habit that can help prevent them from having to experience difficult and traumatizing dental procedures now or later in life.

Betsy Hillyard, CCLS (Certified Child Life Specialist) and oral health program coordinator at Cook Children’s Center for Community Health has three tips to encourage parents as you establish good oral health habits at home. As parents, modeling good oral health, having realistic expectations, and having the right tools available can help to make the daily practice of oral health easier for children.

  1. Model good oral health. As parents and caregivers, much of what we teach our children stems from what we do. If your children don’t see you brushing your teeth, flossing or prioritizing your own oral health, they are not likely going to want to do it. However, children are often motivatedchild brushing teeth - cover by what they see adults doing and often want to do those things simply because an adult is doing them. Allowing your young children to brush their teeth alongside you can be a great way to encourage them while also monitoring their brushing times and techniques. It is also important to start modeling from a very young age. You can start brushing even your baby’s teeth with a toothbrush (no toothpaste) to begin to get them used to it.  Modeling frequency and times will help your children be able to establish their routine. If you brush your teeth 2 times a day every day, before leaving the house and again before going to bed, your children will likely adopt this same routine. It’s important to model whatever your expectations are. This is true for any habit you are trying to teach your children. It is also encouraged that you monitor your child’s oral health routine until they are 9 years old.
  2. Have realistic expectations. If oral health has always been a challenge for your family, it is important to start somewhere, and it is never too late to start implementing good oral health practices. If your child is currently not getting their teeth brushed at all during the day, start with making it a priority to get at least one time a day in and increase to 2 times a day. If your children don’t spend enough time brushing their teeth, it may be good to have them try to brush for at least 30 seconds and then adding more time as they accomplish their goals. Take time to celebrate the one time a day or the 30 seconds that your child can brush. The goal would be to work up to 2 minutes of brushing time, 2 times a day. If your child has mastered brushing their teeth, but flossing is not happening, start with a goal of flossing once or twice a week and work your way up to daily. It’s important to keep oral health a positive topic with your kids. Giving them manageable and attainable goals will help to build their confidence. Positive reinforcement is always helpful when establishing a habit. Using brushing incentive calendars is a great way to keep your expectations realistic while rewarding any goals your child accomplishes. Setting a goal like brushing ten times a week and flossing twice could mean a small prize or extra screen time at the end of the week.
  3. Have the right tools available to your kids. Brushing your teeth can be much more fun if you love your toothbrush and the flavor of your toothpaste. This is a great place to allow your child to have choices. While it is important to get your child the right sized toothbrush, allowing your child to pick a toothbrush that they love with their favorite color or character can help. Also, it is important to choose a flavor of toothpaste that your child likes. I know my girls often found minty toothpaste to be way too “spicy” for them when they were younger. Just make sure that you choose a toothpaste that is approved by the ADA (American Dental Association). Finding some type of timer that works for your children is also helpful. It can be a simple sand timer or there are apps with brushing timers for kids. Whenchild brushing teeth - vertical encouraging flossing, I find that for myself and for my girls that flosser holders are much more user friendly than string floss. They also make flossers in fun colors. My girls get flossing done more easily and frequently with flossing holders available. Anything that can aide your child in meeting their brushing and flossing goals is a win!

As always, it can be helpful to use books and videos to help encourage your children’s oral health.

Brushing teeth and flossing are habits that help your child’s overall health for their lifetime. While it can be challenging to establish any good habit, it is important to remember that the effort and time you take to help your children will allow them to continue healthy habits into adulthood. If you run into any challenges or difficulties (i.e. thumb sucking, pacifiers, dexterity with the toothbrush, etc) with your child’s oral health, it is important to reach out to your child’s dentist as they can help you navigate this. Happy brushing!

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf   
Ashley PagenkopfAshley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.