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Cleaning Your Child's Mouth and Teeth

From Mouth Wipes to Brushing and Flossing

As with any other part of your child's body, your child's mouth needs to be cleaned regularly to keep it healthy, working properly and looking good. If your child's mouth is clean and healthy, the rest of his or her body will be better off, too.

Oral hygiene needs to start early. This means taking action even before your child gets his or her first tooth. Wipe your child's tongue, gums and cheeks at least once a day, before bed or nap time. Use a clean, damp washcloth wrapped around your finger. You also can use a terrycloth finger cot. Most drugstores carry them.

It's best if you can look into your child's mouth while you clean it. Lay your baby in a bassinette and stand behind his or her head as you use the wipe. As your child grows, sit down and have your child stand or kneel between your legs, facing away from you. Then, your child can tip his or her head back into your lap.

While you are looking in your child's mouth, keep an eye out for anything that doesn't look normal. This could be white or red spots in the mouth, or bumps or bulges that you haven’t seen before. Ask your child's dentist about anything you see.

As soon as the first teeth appear, it is especially important to clean the gums where they meet the teeth. This is where plaque is most likely to cause cavities and inflamed gums. Plaque is a sticky white or yellowish substance that contains bacteria. Wiping is a good way to clean your child's mouth until the first few teeth begin to show. Then it is best to switch to a soft-bristled, infant-sized toothbrush. Use a very small smear of toothpaste.

Who Does the Brushing?

Young children can't brush and floss their own teeth well. Parents and those caring for children should supervise and help with brushing and flossing until a child is 7 or 8 years old. However, children should be encouraged to participate in brushing as soon as they can hold a toothbrush. Young children learn best by watching and copying adults. They will be more interested in learning to brush and floss when they see their parents and caregivers doing so every day.


The most important time to brush is just before bedtime. While we sleep, saliva flow slows down and the mouth provides less protection against cavities than it does during the day.

First, let your child brush his or her own teeth. Don't worry about how well he or she does it. Then, brush your child's teeth a second time.

Have your child kneel or sit in front of you and tilt his or her head back in your lap. Gently pull one cheek aside with your finger so you can see the outside surface of the upper back teeth.

Remember that how well you brush your child's teeth is just as important as how long you brush. Once you are comfortable with a set brushing pattern, you will be able to do it quickly, even if your child is not in the mood or being fussy. Follow these five steps:

  • Upper/outer: Place the toothbrush against the outside surface of the very back tooth on one upper side. Angle the toothbrush up toward the gums. Gently brush the area where the gums and tooth meet. Brush each tooth as you move the brush around the outside of all the upper teeth to the last tooth on the other side.
  • Lower/outer: Move to the last back tooth on one side on the bottom. Brush the outside of each tooth as you move around to the other side.
  • Lower/inner: Move to the inside (tongue side) of the lower teeth and brush each tooth as you move around from one side to the other.
  • Upper/inner: Move the brush to the inside of the upper teeth and move from one side to the other as you brush.
  • Brush the biting surfaces of back teeth on the top and bottom.

Your child might protest at first, but over time you'll both become comfortable with this routine. Then careful brushing will be a part of the bedtime ritual.

The right brush can sometimes make all the difference. Use a brush that is designed for your child's age. The smaller the brush head, the easier it is to see where you are brushing. It's also easier to aim the bristles along the gum line and to clean thoroughly.

Use a soft-bristled brush. Brush gently! Scrubbing can damage teeth and gums. Replace toothbrushes about every four months. If a toothbrush begins to look worn or frayed sooner than this, you or your child may be brushing too hard.

Regular toothbrushes work just fine. But powered toothbrushes do make brushing easier. They can be especially helpful for children who can't sit still long enough to properly brush their teeth with a regular toothbrush.

Never brush your child's teeth with a toothbrush that has been used by someone else. This can transfer bacteria and viruses into your child's mouth that could cause disease, including cavities.


Once any two of your child's teeth touch each other, it's time to start flossing. Flossing helps to prevent cavities by removing plaque and bits of food caught between teeth.

Floss is available in many different sizes, coatings, flavors and forms. If you have trouble using the floss wrapped around your fingers, you can purchase floss holders in most drugstores.

Floss after brushing. This way, there is still some toothpaste in the mouth. The floss will spread it between the teeth.

To floss without using a floss holder:

  • With a younger child, lean the child's head back into your lap so you can see into his or her mouth. An older child can stand in front of you (facing away) and tip his or her head back against your chest.
  • Take about 18 inches of dental floss and wrap one end around each of your middle fingers until there is about 4 inches of floss between your fingers.
  • Using your thumbs and index fingers as guides, gently slide the floss between two teeth, using a saw-like motion. Once at the gum line, wrap the floss to form a C shape against one of the two teeth. Slide it up and down against that tooth.
  • Next, wrap the floss against the other tooth and repeat the up-down motion.


Unless your dentist recommends otherwise, start using a toothpaste with fluoride on your child's teeth as soon as they come into the mouth. Fluoride helps to prevent cavities. For children who are younger than 3 years, use only a "smear" of toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) on the bristles of the toothbrush. For children who are 3 to 6 years old, the amount of toothpaste can be increased to a pea-size amount.

Using too much toothpaste puts your child at risk of developing white or brown spots on the permanent teeth (called fluorosis). Until children are able to brush their own teeth correctly, it is important that they are supervised while brushing. Young children also should be encouraged to spit out any excess toothpaste to avoid accidental swallowing.

Mouthwashes and Fluoride Mouth Rinses

Mouthwash and fluoride mouth rinse are two different products. Mouthwash freshens breath. It doesn't clean teeth. Many mouthwashes contain alcohol. Children younger than 6 should not use mouthwash. They can easily swallow it.

Fluoride mouth rinse coats teeth with fluoride. It is used once or twice a day by children who are at a high risk for cavities. Ask your child's dentist or dental hygienist if your child needs a fluoride mouth rinse. If so, watch your child while he or she uses the rinse, to make sure it does not get swallowed.