Much has been said lately about the importance of teaching your children good health habits from a young age. Between the First Lady’s exercise campaign to the overhaul of school lunches, we seem to be making a big push to teach our kids how to live healthy lifestyles before unhealthy habits set in.
But much less attention is given to the importance of teaching good oral hygiene to our little ones. It seems that many assume that checkups every 6 months and sending kids to the bathroom to brush before bed as enough. Unfortunately, it’s not.
As parents, it’s critical that you make oral hygiene a priority so that good habits become a part of the daily routines that they carry on for the rest of their lives. And yes, that goes beyond brushing.
1. Be a Role Model
“Do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t cut it for parenting anymore. Telling kids how important it is to brush, floss and regularly visit the dentist doesn’t mean much when they don’t see you doing the same.
Of course you don’t have to make your kids watch every time you brush your teeth, but there are ways to make it clear that you value oral hygiene. When your kids are little and you’re there when they brush, why not brush along with them? They’ll probably think it’s fun, and it gives you a chance to model good brushing techniques.
And don’t forget to tell your children when you go to the dentist – they should understand that regular dental visits don’t stop when you become an adult. It’s also good to share with them stories of when you had braces or when you had to get fillings because you didn’t brush enough. All of these habits will make it clear how important you think oral care is.
2. Make it Fun
I may be a dentist, but I have no delusions when it comes to how many kids feel about brushing. I know that, for some parents, getting kids to brush and floss can be a chore. That’s why you should try to make it a pleasant activity from a very early age. Building positive associations will help encourage them to take good care of their teeth as they become more independent.
Here are a couple tips to add a bit of fun to brushing:
• Sing or hum a silly song as you brush – it will guarantee that they brush long enough and will probably result in a few giggles.
• Play a fun song that lasts approximately 2 minutes and tell them that brushing is over when the song is over.
• Indulge your kids in fun toothbrushes, toothpastes and rinsing cups that will make the routine more interesting.
• Keep a chart next to the sink and let your child put a sticker on it every time they brush. When they reach a certain number of stickers, they get an incentive.
• Let them brush in the shower or bath and encourage them to get messy and get foam all over their mouth.
Unfortunately children are excellent at duping their parents, even from a very young age. So, “Yep Mom, I brushed!” is not good enough. Even if they’re brushing on their own (and not just wetting the brush under the tap), chances are they’re not brushing very well.
Though you’re probably multi-tasking at the time kids are brushing and flossing, it’s worth it to stop what you’re doing for the few minutes it takes to stand in the bathroom with them to guarantee that the job’s getting done right. Here’s what you should be looking for:
• Brush for at least 2 minutes
• Reach all teeth – the top, inner sides and outer sides
• Brush the tongue
• Rinse mouth and toothbrush well
• Store toothbrush in cabinet (out of reach of toilet germs)
• Use long piece of floss
• Get between all teeth
• Rinse well
4. Don’t Forget Diet
Good oral hygiene goes far beyond the brush. Make sure that you’re not only feeding kids teeth-healthy foods, but that you’re explaining why. Foods that are high in simple sugars, starches and carbohydrates are the ones that cause bad bacteria that results in cavities and tooth decay.
You don’t have to cut these foods out entirely, but try to serve them in moderation. And whenever kids do get a sugary treat, it helps to have them brush (or at least rinse) right afterwards to avoid letting sugar linger and do more damage to teeth.
It also helps to give children foods that are actually beneficial for their teeth. Here are a few dentist-recommended foods:
• Sugar-free gum
5. Encourage Independence
It’s crucial that you take an active role in your children’s oral hygiene and continue to do so until you think they can handle it on their own. Just remember that the ultimate goal is for them to handle it on their own. You shouldn’t still be reminding them to brush their teeth when they’re 12 years old or else their good habits will go down the tubes as soon as you’re not looking. The point is that they understand how important good oral health is so that they continue to keep it up for the rest of their lives.
I encourage the parents of my little patients to let me speak directly to them when discussing what was observed or done in an appointment, instead of just talking over their heads as we often do with kids. You may find that they begin to take on more ownership of their own health when their dentist puts the responsibility on them instead of you.
Every year we understand more and more the link between oral health and overall health. Having damaged teeth and gums has been linked to heart disease and shorter lives. So, as you teach your children the importance of healthy living, it’s vital that you include the importance of a healthy smile as well.