I'm not sure that I've ever met a single parent who enjoys helping their kid floss their teeth — especially their toddler. Toddlers are some of the most demanding little people on the planet and more often than not, when they don't want to do something, they're not going to do it without a fight. That goes for flossing as well. (Unless you're talking about the viral Fortnite dance, which they're mostly happy to engage in.) I spoke with several dentists who explained their top tricks for how to convince a toddler to let you floss their teeth.
"Flossing is important for everyone. It isn't age based. For toddlers, especially those with teeth that are tight together and/or overlapping, it's important to get floss in between the teeth as those are spots that the toothbrush can't reach," says Erin Issac, DMD at Winning Smiles Pediatric Dental Care and assistant clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. "Also once one tooth gets a cavity, usually the one that's touching it will get it also, as cavities are bacteria and it spreads like any other bacteria. So to avoid getting these 'in between the teeth cavities' flossing (along with limiting juices and other versions of liquid sugar) is crucial," she says.
So, because flossing is most definitely important for everyone and toddlers are typically less-than-coordinated, it is up to parents to ensure that proper flossing techniques are utilized. Issac recommends that parents take steps to encourage regular flossing for toddlers starting by allowing toddlers to observe a parent or older sibling floss. "Have them watch you floss. Or if there is a big brother or sister that little sibling adores, have them watch older sibling. A lot of times toddlers want to do whatever older sibling or parent is doing," Issac says.
"Try to make it a fun activity. Sing a song, get the cute little flossers and make it less like a chore," Issac also suggests. "The flossers are great because they are smaller and easier to fit in your kid's mouth. I recommend getting the ones that have fun colors and no pointy ends. That way you can just hand it to your toddler, they can play around with it, then when it comes time to floss, they aren't scared of it."
Adam S. Harwood, DMD, an endodontist practicing in New York City, encourages parents to utilize a tried and true reward system when encouraging toddlers to floss. "Kids respond well to fun and rewards, so if flossing is an issue with your child, try to wrap developing the flossing habit around separate positive re-enforcements. Start by leveraging the various kid-friendly flossing-products on the market. Be sure to differentiate their special flavored, colored, licensed and marketed floss from your own boring floss," he says.
"Make flossing an integral part of an entire evening’s or morning’s routine for which a reward is associated, like a bed time story, allowance or a trip to a special activity. And if all else fails, remind your toddler that the tooth fairy only accepts healthy lost teeth in exchange for money, so it’s important that they floss if they hope to one day have a profitable visitation," Dr. Harwood says.
As explained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children usually need help flossing until they reach age 8, but potentially until age 10. This is why it's important to establish good flossing habits as a toddler that you can help kids maintain throughout childhood and into adulthood.
As we all know, even the best laid plans can go awry and some days your toddler just is NOT. DOING. IT. American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry president Dr. Joe Castellano wants parents to be reassured that this is totally normal and that missing a few days of flossing here and there is not going to spell impending doom for your toddler's dental health. "While it would be great if we could floss the little one’s teeth every day, in reality it might not always be possible. The best advice I can give is to do it as often as possible. The more the better, but if you can only get in flossing 3-4 times a week, then strive for that. The goal is to make sure that we keep the areas between the teeth that the brush cannot get to as clean as possible and help keep the child free from decay," he says.
Even though missing a day or two of flossing your toddler's teeth won't hurt, Dr. Harwood says parents should pay attention if they notice any pain experienced with flossing. "The primary concern should be about the child’s resistance to flossing and quickly identifying what can be done to alleviate the tantrums. If there is some underlying pain that’s associated with flossing, a dental professional should be consulted to determine if a correct — pain free — flossing technique is being administrated, of if the child is suffering from acute oral sensitivity and what steps can be taken to address it," he says.
The good news? With a solid flossing habit in place, oral sensitivity isn't something your child ever needs to experience.