How to ensure your child is receiving the best oral care.

One of the newest discoveries in preventive medicine begins in the mouth. You may hear modern doctors talk about the oral-systemic connection. Translation: the healthier your teeth — at all ages — the healthier the rest of your body. One of the earliest health tips you can teach your child is good oral hygiene.

Beginning brushers

Dentists now recommend cleaning gums with gauze to remove plaque even before teeth appear, usually around 6 to 7 months. Try these terrific tooth-brushing tactics:

  • The best chance for a cooperative baby and clean teeth is to use your moistened gauze-wrapped fingertip as a toothbrush. Gauze also works well for the older baby who refuses to let you invade his or her mouth with a toothbrush.
  • Try the two-parent tooth-brushing position. Parents sit knee to knee with baby on their laps, facing up. One parent gently secures baby’s arms and legs while the other parent brushes the teeth from above, providing a wide-open-mouth entry.

Tooth-brushing toddlers

It’s important to care for baby teeth. These primary teeth hold the right spaces for the secondary, or permanent teeth. Healthy first teeth also contribute to proper alignment of the jawbones and eventual bite. Once baby gets a mouthful of teeth, especially molars, a toothbrush works better than the gauze-on-finger technique to clean the teeth more thoroughly. Don’t forget to take a few gentle swipes over the surface of the tongue, which harbors the same bacteria as the gums.

Some toddlers will understandably protest teeth brushing. Don’t force the issue. Let baby watch you brush your teeth as you let her hold and mouth her own toothbrush. Show excitement, capitalizing on “Brush off the sticky bugs, just like mommy and daddy.” Let your toddler have fun brushing your teeth, then take a quick turn on their teeth to make sure all the “sticky bugs” are gone. To make brushing even more fun, brush to one of your child’s favorite songs.

Children mostly protest brushing their back teeth because of the gag reflex, so begin with the front teeth and ease toward the back. Try not to make it seem like a battle. Remain happy, positive and calm, and gently repeat such phrases as: “It’s OK, Mama’s brushing your teeth,” and “Almost done.” If your toddler senses that you are calm, they will calm down as well.

Choosing toothpaste

Here’s where a lot of new discoveries have been made in dental care. One of the hottest topics in medicine is the term “microbiome,” which simply means the normal bacteria that live in your oral cavities and gut. In return for a warm place to live and free food, they do healthy things for the body.

The microbiome loves the mouth because it is warm, moist and full of food they can feast on. Dental experts refer to a “window of infectivity” between 18 months and three years, which is when children are most likely to acquire high levels of bad bacteria in their mouths. I have talked to many dentists and surveyed the current medical literature on what is the most oral-friendly toothpaste, and the winner is xylitol toothpaste. The reason? Biofilm.

Biofilm is a natural protective barrier composed of fluid secretions and bacteria that line the surface tissues throughout the body, especially the mouth, the airways and intestinal lining. It seems that Mother Nature formulated the best bio lm for each tissue— very fluid, not too sticky, keeps moving and contains the healthy bacteria that naturally reside in this pool of protective material. The best known biofilm is saliva.

However, what we don’t want is a sticky biofilm, also known as the plaque that your friendly neighborhood hygienist scrapes off your teeth. The good news is xylitol, a natural sugar found in plants, only feeds the good bacteria in the biofilm and not the bad bacteria. Dentists consider this the best bacterial balance for a child’s healthy oral hygiene. Sugary, sweetened “suckies” promote tooth-decay. Unlike other sugars, xylitol doesn’t stick to teeth, nor does it produce enamel-eroding acid like other sugars do.

The right toothbrush

This one is easy:

  • Choose a short brush with soft bristles on a small head. The younger the child, the softer the brush should be
  • Soften the bristles with warm water before brushing
  • Store a spare brush. They get lost, dirty and wear out quickly
  • Change brushes when the bristles become bent

Regard brushing not as a chore to be dreaded, but as an interaction to be enjoyed. Your child will never forget these special teeth-times spent together.

Bill Sears, M.D. is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).