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A handbook for keeping your kid's teeth healthy

Chloe Schneider

Chloe Schneider

Chloe is a writer and content strategist with bylines in mindbodygreen, Mashable, Ageless by Rescu, and more. She's a mum to one-year-old Felix, and believes that you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once
Created on Apr 09, 2024 · 7 mins read
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When you think about instilling healthy habits in your kids, what comes to mind? As a parent, nutritious meals, daily movement, time outdoors, and finding ways to manage stress are top of my list.   

Oral care, however, I must admit falls a little further down. I know that twice-daily brushing and regular trips to the dentist are essential, but I tend to see them more as tasks I need to complete, rather than an important part of a healthy life. 

It’s time to turn that around. Teaching kids about good oral health habits is as important as talking to them about the power of a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet. And new data coming out of the Australian Oral Association (ADA) shows why.

Preventable oral problems are on the rise

In March of this year, the ADA updated its Oral Health Tracker with some concerning insights. It shows that 11 in every 1,000 children aged 5-9 were admitted to Australian hospitals for preventable dental conditions in 2021-2022. That’s up from 9.5 in 2018, and the trend seems to be heading in the wrong direction. 

Most Aussie parents have the tools available to minimise tooth decay, access the dentist, drink fluoridated water, and prevent oral health problems from getting to the point of hospitalisation. So what’s going on?

“There are complex reasons for this,” ADA President Dr Scott Davis shared. “Every state and territory provides free dental care for eligible children so they can see a private or public dentist under the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS) — but there needs to be considerably more effective, targeted publicity of the scheme as it’s currently only used by 38% of eligible families.” 

Funding needs to improve too. Despite tooth decay being the most common chronic disease in childhood, only 1.4% of government health spending is dedicated to dental services. At the same time, a flawed funding model means access to surgery theatre time for dental procedures has been slashed, causing long wait times for kids who are often experiencing pain and worsening conditions.

These structural problems are major and need to be addressed. But us parents and caregivers are not powerless. In addition to campaigning for more and better government funding, we need to put dental hygiene on the same pedestal as we do other healthy habits. Right now, the research shows that only 68.5% of children aged 5-14 are brushing their teeth twice daily with fluoridated toothpaste, and 70% of kids aged 9-13 are having too much sugar, leading to tooth decay. 

Turning this situation will require considerable effort — but it is doable. And it all starts with education.

Oral health care for kids: The basics

The good news is, oral health care is not overly complicated. It can be boiled down to three things:

1. Establish an at-home oral hygiene routine

Setting up a dental hygiene routine should start the moment your little one’s first teeth arrive. Initially, it’s a gentle clean with water. Over the next six to eight years, you’ll help your child build up to fully independent brushing and flossing.

Remember, habit shows up when motivation doesn’t! This early investment in habit-forming will help ensure your kids will floss and brush even when they don’t really feel like it. Check out the timeline below for more specifics.

2. Encourage a healthy, balanced diet

Right now, the research from ADA shows that 70% of kids aged 9-13 are having too much sugar and we know that excess sugar intake is directly linked to tooth decay. 

That said, the general advice to reduce added sugar and prioritise nutrient-rich foods is not always helpful to parents feeding fussy toddlers or neurodivergent kids who have fixed patterns around food. 

So start small! The research shows that sugary drinks are the main culprit with 37% percent of kids consuming two to five drinks of fruit juice a week and the same number having two to five soft drinks a week. Start by swapping one of these weekly beverages over to fluoridated water, and work up from there.   

3. Don’t skip regular dentist visits 

First off, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The dentist is expensive, and with the cost of living on the rise, those bills can quickly overwhelm already-crunched parents.

If that’s you, we’d encourage you to start by logging into Medicare to assess whether you are eligible for the CDBS and visit the website of your state or territory public dental service to see if you’re eligible to make an appointment and have more of your bill covered by Medicare. 

For most kids, dentist visits start between the ages of one and two and happen every six months or yearly, depending on the schedule your dentist outlines. These visits are general oral health checks that ensure your kid’s teeth are developing properly and their oral hygiene routine is doing all it should. 

Dental issues can progress quickly, so avoid skipping appointments. In three to five years a small cavity can progress to needing a root canal or even extraction. If that same small cavity was caught in a regular annual checkup, it could be nothing more than a small filling or even a simple change in at-home dental hygiene habits.

Ages and stages: A timeline for kid’s dental health

Once your kids turn seven or eight, most of their basic dental health routine will feel pretty routine and easy. But in those early years, things are changing pretty quickly, and when the mental load weighs heavy (and boy does it weigh heavy some days!), it’s easy to lose track of which appointments you need to book and when. 

To help you get started, the timeline below clearly outlines the major milestones to be aware of at each age and stage. Remember, babies develop at different rates, so take the early ages as a guide and speak to your GP or dentist if ever you are unsure what to do: 

3-12 months: Start brushing!

As soon as your child starts teething, it’s time to start gently cleaning their teeth and gums. You can do this by wiping with a soft, damp cloth or brushing with a soft toothbrush and water. Start with once a day before bed, and move up to morning and night to instil the habit early on. 

12 months: First dentist visit

HealthDirect recommends that dentist visits happen from the age of 1 or within 6 months of the first tooth erupting. At this visit, the dentist will check that teeth are coming in properly and help your little ones get used to visiting the dentist early on. 

18 months – 2 years: Introduce toothpaste

From the age of 18 months, you can introduce a low-fluoride toothpaste that is suitable for kids. There are so many amazing options out there, and lots of fun flavours. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your GP or dentist for a recommendation.

2 years: Spitting and flossing

At about 2 years, you can start to teach your kid to spit out the toothpaste while brushing. It’s best to avoid giving them water to swish until they’re older. 

When you notice your baby’s teeth are touching, you can begin gently flossing between them. When you visit the dentist, ask them to give you a demonstration. 

2 years and beyond: Regular dental visits 

At that first visit, your dentist will let you know how often your child needs a checkup. It’s usually every 6-12 months. 

6-8 years and beyond: Independent brushing 

Until your kid is around 6-7, they will need a parent or caregiver’s help brushing. Over this time, you can show them how to brush thoroughly for two minutes with toothpaste twice a day. 

At around 7-8 years old, most kids will be ready to floss independently too. Before then, aim to teach them proper flossing techniques and build up to complete independence. 

Switching the narrative: Dental care is health care

Research shows that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in childhood, and oral diseases like tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancer contribute to illness, disability and death in Australia. 

Twice-daily brushing and flossing, avoiding sugar, and visiting the dentist are more than just to-dos that help us avoid fillings or root canals — they’re an important part of giving our kids the skills they need to live a long, healthy, happy life.  






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