Caring for your child's teeth

Toddlers brushing teeth

Preventing tooth decay is an important part of giving your child the best start in life. From reducing their sugar intake to brushing their teeth and making regular trips to the dentist, we've drawn on expert advice and Mumnsetters' experiences to produce the following guide…

Tooth decay is largely preventable, yet it remains a serious problem for children. Findings from Public Health England’s most recent national dental survey of five-year-olds, showed that in England, a quarter had experienced tooth decay, with three or four teeth affected.

Poor dental health has consequences for children’s general wellbeing. It can affect their eating and sleeping, as well as their school work and socialising. It can also be disruptive to families, with time needed for dentist's appointments and any other treatment. Among toddlers, poor dental health might not be apparent. Before long, though, problems will emerge: among five to 11-year-olds, tooth extraction is the leading cause of hospital admissions.

Most of these problems are avoidable if you have the right information, and take sensible steps, from the start. Don't worry, nobody is suggesting you ban your toddler from eating chocolate buttons. Good dental health is all about consuming sugar in moderation and, crucially, making sure your toddler is brushing her teeth and doing it right.

How can tooth decay in children be prevented?

In 2018, Public Health England launched a campaign to improve children's diets, including calls for parents to be tougher in limiting their kids' intake of sweets, cakes and fizzy drinks. The campaign focused on children aged five to 11 but the rot can set in long before and, the most effective way to stop your child from having problems later, is to establish good habits early.

That means reducing her sugar intake, getting her into the habit of brushing at least twice a day and making regular visits to the dentist.

Reducing sugar for children

Stopping your child from eating too much sugar is not easy, what with demands for Percy Pigs and chocolate buttons. The best solution is to keep her sugar habit to a minimum from the start. However, if you think she's consuming too much sugar then you can gradually reduce her intake.

Limit your child's number of snacks. Any sweet food should be given at mealtimes and sugary foods and drinks should be avoided before bedtime. As one Mumsnetter says: “Teeth can only cope with three sugar onslaughts a day, so let them have sugary stuff with meals only. That means after-school snacks need to be sugar-free.”

Sugary drinks shouldn't be part of your child's daily diet. Encourage her to drink water, lower fat milks or sugar-free, diet and no-added-sugar drinks instead. A Mumsnetter recommends: “Develop a water habit from the off. My two have juice or squash rarely and don't miss it.”

One glass of 150ml unsweetened fruit juice counts as one of your child’s five-a-day – but try to avoid giving them any more than this. According to one Mumsnetter: “It is better for teeth if children drink it through a straw (rather than from a cup/bottle/sippy cup).”

Mum and girl brush teeth

Brushing children's teeth

Everyone knows brushing is an essential part of looking after teeth, but it's essential that you get the method right, otherwise brushing can ineffective.

When should my child start brushing their teeth?

As soon as the first tooth comes through, it's time to start brushing. Establish brushing as part of your child's day, first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The easiest way for you to brush her teeth, is to sit her on your knee, with her head resting against your chest.

Brush together, with you setting an example and showing your little one how to brush.

If your toddler dislikes brushing her teeth – and some can be resistant – try to make it fun and emphasise that this is something big girls and boys do, which is why you're brushing your teeth too. Even if you go to bed later than your toddler, brush your teeth at the same time as her. She will benefit from watching and copying you.

One Mumsnetter goes further: “Make it a family affair; we clean our teeth at the same time, make funny noises, gargle loudly and spit extravagantly (into the sink!).”

Another uses her partner as a bad example: “We showed our daughter Daddy's teeth (loads of black fillings) and told her that your teeth go black if you don't brush them. We've never had a problem since!”

How should my child brush their teeth?

Use a baby toothbrush with a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste. For maximum protection from decay, all children should use a family toothpaste with 1350 to 1500ppm fluoride (the amount can be found on the side of the tube or on the packaging). The amount of toothpaste to be used is dependent on age:

  • Children under three should use a smear of toothpaste.
  • Children aged between three and six should use a pea-sized amount.
  • Children up to seven should be supervised: parents/carers should help their child to brush their teeth to make sure they are cleaned properly, to supervise the amount of toothpaste used and to prevent licking or eating the toothpaste.

Teach your toddler to brush in small circles and cover the surfaces of her teeth. As she gets older, and grows more teeth, encourage her to make her brushing more thorough.

Toddlers should spit and not rinse – rinsing with water washes away the fluoride and reduces how well it works.

Little girl at dentist

Visiting the dentist

Take your child to the dentist early, as soon as their first teeth start to appear (at around six months). From them on, visit as often as the dentist recommends.

One Mumsnetter says: “You should take your children to the dentist as soon as they have teeth – if only to get them used to sitting in the chair and having their teeth looked at. Good dental hygiene should be practised from as early on as possible.”

Remember, NHS treatment is free for all women during pregnancy and up to the child’s first birthday. It’s also free for children under 18 (or 19 if they're in full-time education).

For children under three years

From the age of six months, bottle-fed babies should be introduced to drinking from a free-flow cup. Bottle-feeding should be discouraged from 12 months old. Only breast or formula milk or cooled, boiled water should be given in bottles.

Breastfeeding up to 12 months of age is associated with reduced levels of tooth decay.

What Mumsnetters say about caring for your child's teeth

“Limit things like fruit juice and dried fruit – even though they seem healthy in comparison to other drinks and snacks, they're also full of sugar, which is really bad for children's teeth.”

“At 12 weeks, we started brushing when my son's first tooth came through. He's seven months now, and has eight teeth, and happily sits on my knee with his mouth open, teeth bared so I can brush them.”

“My son used to hate having his teeth brushed when he was tiny. I had a breakthrough one night when I brushed his teeth while he was in the bath – he was happy and distracted, and I got two jobs done at once. Clean teeth, clean child, and more story time.”

“Go for gimmicky toothbrushes, cartoon characters, suckers on the bottom etc. If your child's old enough, get them involved in choosing them.”

“My son used to hate having his teeth brushed when he was tiny. I had a breakthrough one night when I brushed his teeth while he was in the bath – he was happy and distracted, and I got two jobs done at once. Clean teeth, clean child, and more story time.”

“Invest in an electric toothbrush, preferably one with timers. My children love them and it's really helped them know how long they should be cleaning their teeth for.”