Reinforcing Oral Hygiene Habits

Robert Slovick, DDSRobert Slovick, DDS, co-owns the practice, Bob & Peg Dental with his sister, Margaret Sujack, DDS. They have been serving families with quality dental care for more than 25 years.

By Robert Slovick, DDS

Tooth decay in young children is probably more prevalent now than 25 years ago. According to the American Dental Association, 28% of preschool age children exhibit common tooth decay by the time they attend preschool.

I believe that the increase in soda consumption and availability of snacks with high sugar content are contributing to the increased number of tooth decay today. Bacteria depend and thrive on sugar. Without regular brushing, these bacteria can lead to tooth decay.

It is never too early to teach children proper tooth brushing techniques. It should become an important activity both at home and in preschool settings. Children can start learning good oral hygiene habits as soon as they have teeth (6-12 months old). At this young age, the purpose of brushing includes getting used to the feel of a tooth brush inside the mouth and clearing off the bacteria on developing teeth.

Between the ages of 2 and 6, the effectiveness of tooth brushing becomes more important. During these years, adult supervision is needed to make sure that the child is learning proper brushing techniques. It is good practice to allow children to brush their teeth first, and then adults can supervise or help with final re-brushing. As children's coordination improve, more responsibility is transferred to them.

When choosing toothbrushes, select one with soft, nylon bristles. Several manufacturers also make toothbrushes with smaller heads and handles for smaller mouths. At minimum, a toothbrush should be replaced every 3 to 6 months. Numerous studies have shown that as the bristles wear out, the toothbrush does not clean as well.

Any toothpaste containing fluoride is fine for use. When doling out toothpaste, only use a small, pea-sized amount. Too much fluoride over a period of time, could lead to fluorosis, or discoloration of permanent teeth. Swallowing too much toothpaste can also lead to upset stomachs.

Children should also be taught to take their time when brushing. For children between the ages of 2-6, brushing should take a minimum of 1-2 minutes. Brushing timers are available and a fun way to teach a child to brush for the required amount of time.

Children at this age group should start regularly seeing a dentist for preventive dental visits. During the appointment, their brushing will be evaluated and recommendations made if improvements are needed. If tooth decay is diagnosed, the child's diet and brushing schedule can be reviewed and modified.

Forming good oral hygiene habits at a young age can prevent tooth decay that may affect a child's ability to speak or eat. Caring for young children's teeth today can help create a better smile tomorrow!

When to brush

Brushing should take place daily, after a meal or snack. Children shouldn't eat or drink anything for 30 minutes after brushing to get the most benefit from fluoride.


With children ages 3-5, toothbrushing can best be accomplished as a group activity, with adults supervising, coaching, and modeling the correct method for brushing teeth. Additional brushings should take place at home.

Storing the toothbrushes

Toothbrushes should be rinsed in tap water, stored in an upright position, and allowed to air dry. Make sure the brushes don't touch each other when drying. Storage racks or cabinets for toothbrushes are available.

Replacing toothbrushes

Replace toothbrushes every 3 to 4 months or sooner if the bristles become worn. Toothbrushes should be thrown away if a child has been absent from the group setting for a lengthy period or if a child uses someone else's toothbrush.

For toothbrushes and other oral care products, shop our Oral & Dental Care category. For more dental health education resources, including free downloads, see the School Health blog.