According to a report by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS), dental caries or tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children, affecting nearly half of US children by age 9. This makes teaching dental hygiene to preschoolers a critical step in order to lay the foundation for good oral health habits that will last a lifetime.
Early childhood is a critical time for establishing healthy habits, and instilling good dental hygiene practices in children can help to prevent dental caries, gum disease, and other oral health problems later in life.
Dental care for children
When it comes to infants and toddlers, dental caries is more commonly referred to as baby bottle caries or early childhood caries (ECC). Dental caries is contagious, and can be transmitted from mother to her child via contact with saliva. Common transmission channels from mother to child include:
- Kissing the child on the lips
- Sharing a spoon and other utensils with the child
- Mother’s tooth brushing
Besides the transmission of infectious saliva, especially Streptococcus mutans, tooth decay for children can be caused by other factors, including:
- Poor oral hygiene for mother and child
- A high-sugar diet
- Bad feeding practices, such as allowing the baby to constantly suck on the spout of a beaker full of milk, juice, or other sugary drinks, blowing on food, and sharing utensils
Baby teeth are at the highest risk for decay when they first erupt. Consequently, dental therapists and researchers agree that children’s oral health must start at home, with caregivers and parents receiving the necessary oral education that encourages good habits at home if preventive strategies are to be successful.
Common dental problems in child
In addition to dental caries, there are several common dental problems that can occur in early childhood. These include:
Tooth decay can affect not only the primary teeth but also the developing permanent teeth. It can cause pain, infection, and in some cases, the loss of teeth.
Thumb-sucking and pacifier use
Prolonged thumb-sucking or pacifier use can lead to dental problems, including misalignment of teeth, and changes in the shape of the roof of the mouth.
Tongue thrusting occurs when the tongue pushes against the front teeth while swallowing. This can lead to dental problems such as misaligned teeth.
Malocclusion refers to a misalignment of the upper and lower teeth, which can cause problems with biting, chewing, and speaking.
Gum disease is an infection of the gums that can cause swelling, redness, and bleeding. If left untreated, it can lead to more serious dental problems, including tooth loss.
It is important to be aware of these common dental problems in early childhood and take steps to prevent them. This includes encouraging good dental hygiene habits, limiting sugary foods and drinks, and addressing habits such as thumb-sucking or pacifier use. Additionally, regular dental checkups can help detect and address any potential dental problems early on.
Teaching dental hygiene to preschoolers
Parents and caregivers are the first educators in a child’s life, and play a critical role in maintaining their overall health. With new parents facing all kinds of challenges, their child’s oral health can be easily forgotten. Actually, gaining an understanding of oral hygiene can help to not only prevent tooth decay, but also establish healthy habits that remain relevant as your child grows and into adulthood.
Research suggests that kids who are exposed to adverse experiences are twice as likely to suffer from tooth decay and gum disease, as well as related conditions like toothaches, missing teeth, and unfilled cavities, all of which can negatively impact their overall health.
It is, therefore, critical that children be taught about their mouths and introduced to good habits as early in life as possible. This, in turn, requires that oral education for parents begin with prenatal education and the formation of a dental home by the time the baby is 12 to 18 months old. Prenatal education will help the expectant mother understand the risks she poses to her baby, and take the necessary measures to prevent tooth conditions that may be transmitted to her offspring.
Child dental care tips for parents
When the child is born, parents should consult with their family dentist or pediatric dentist in order to identify their child’s oral health milestones. The first dental visit for your child should be within six months of the emergence of their first teeth, or at age 1. Subsequent meetings will provide an opportunity for parents to discuss with the dentist what to expect when their baby’s teeth start erupting, and the best way to care for his/her new teeth.
The following are some strategies that can be used to teach dental hygiene to preschoolers:
1. Make it fun
Dental hygiene can be made fun and enjoyable for your child through activities such as coloring pages, interactive games, and songs about brushing teeth. This can help to engage their interest and motivate them to practice good dental hygiene.
2. Use visual aids
Visual aids such as posters or pictures can be used to teach preschoolers about the importance of dental hygiene and demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques.
3. Demonstrate proper techniques
Preschoolers learn best by example, so it is important to demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques and encourage them to practice these techniques themselves.
4. Encourage healthy habits
Encourage healthy habits such as limiting sugary snacks and drinks, and drinking water instead of sugary beverages. Or drinking water after consuming sugary items, and swirling it in the mouth before swallowing.
5. Regular dental checkups
Regular dental checkups can help to reinforce good oral health habits and detect any potential problems early on.
6. Let kids pick their own toothbrush
Allowing kids to choose their own toothbrush can make them feel more involved in the process and more likely to use it. Let them pick out a toothbrush with their favorite color or character to make it more fun.
7. Use positive reinforcement
Praising and rewarding children for good dental hygiene habits can be an effective way to encourage them to continue practicing good habits. Stickers, small toys, or other rewards can be given for brushing and flossing regularly.
8. Set a routine
Establishing a consistent routine for brushing and flossing can help make it a habit. Try to make brushing and flossing a part of the child’s morning and evening routines.
9. Make it a family affair
Brushing and flossing together as a family can be a fun way to model good dental hygiene habits and create a sense of togetherness.
10. Avoid negative language
Avoid using negative language or punishment to correct dental hygiene habits. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement and encouragement to promote good habits.
By using these additional tips, parents, teachers, and caregivers can help to make dental hygiene a positive experience for preschoolers, while promoting good habits that can last a lifetime.
Dental hygiene activity for preschoolers
There are many ways that early head start (EHS) and head start (HS) staff can help improve the oral health of children under 4 years, including prevention of dental disease; checking the mouth and teeth; educational activities that encourage good dental habits at home; and practicing dental safety in the classroom.
1. Prevention of dental disease
Help children to clean their teeth.
Staff or guardian or parent should help children brush their teeth using the guidelines below:
For children under age 1: Brush once daily
- Wash hands (staff).
- Cover a finger with gauze or soft cloth to gently wipe infants’ gums.
For children between ages 1 and 2: Brush once daily, after a meal
- Brush children’s teeth with soft-bristled toothbrush and a smaller than pea-sized amount of toothpaste with fluoride.
For children age 2 or older: Brush once daily, after a meal
- Help children brush teeth using pea-sized amount of toothpaste with fluoride.
Encourage healthy eating habits.
- Avoid fruit drinks and sodas at snack and meal time
- Serve water or milk instead.
- Children ages 1 to 6 should have only ½- ¾ cups of juice a day.
- Dilute juice with water.
Focus on nutrition
- Avoid serving starchy, sticky, sugary foods.
Keep children’s toothbrushes separate from one another.
- Label each one with a permanent marker.
- Store toothbrushes vertically, with their bristles on top
- Have children save their lunch milk carton to decorate. Cut a hole in the top and insert the toothbrush.
- Punch holes through an egg carton.
- Decorate a shoe box; cut holes in the lids and insert toothbrushes.
2. Checking the Mouth and Teeth
Daily Health Checklist
- Look for signs of dental caries or infections.
- Listen for complaints when brushing teeth, eating, or drinking hot/cold beverages.
- Feel for fever or swelling around mouth, cheeks, and jaws.
- Smell for bad breath odor, which could be sign of cavity/infection.
- After brushing, use a flashlight and look in each child’s mouth for chalky, white, or brown spots, which are early signs of tooth decay.
- If there are signs of decay, tell the child’s parent or caregiver.
3. Educational Activities
Healthy Habits Discussion
Talk to children about the difference between baby and adult teeth, and how it feels to lose a tooth. Children can participate by telling you how to care for teeth. Points to emphasize are:
- Brush teeth in the morning and before bed (at least).
- Brush teeth after meals (when possible).
- Brush teeth, or at least rinse mouth, after eating sweet or sticky foods.
- Eat more foods that are good for teeth, and avoid bad foods:
Good for teeth
Bad for teeth
Raw vegetables (carrots, peppers, celery, etc.)
Cookies and cakes
Fruits (apples, pears, berries, etc.)
Water or milk
Sticky foods (raisins, gummy treats, etc.)
4. Practicing dental safety in the classroom
Healthy Smiles Collage
Cut out magazine pictures of smiles, and have children glue them on paper.
Healthy Smiles Songs
Sing songs with children to encourage and reinforce healthy dental behaviors
Teaching dental hygiene to preschoolers can help to establish good oral health habits that can last a lifetime. By making it fun, using visual aids, demonstrating proper techniques, encouraging healthy habits, and regular dental checkups, parents, teachers, and caregivers can help to ensure that preschoolers are well-equipped to maintain good oral health and prevent dental problems.