Flossing is one of those things everyone knows they should do, but that we usually let slide until the morning of a dentist appointment. If you’re a parent staring down a wild 1-, 2-, or 3-year-old wondering how to floss a toddler’s teeth, it’s pretty easy to put off teaching them to do it, too. But it’s important for your child’s oral health that they learn to floss early (that doesn’t mean the viral Fortnite dance version of flossing, either).
“I tell my patients’ parents that flossing isn’t age-based. If you have teeth that are close together or overlap, you want to floss so food and bacteria aren’t trapped between them,” says Erin Issac, DMD, board-certified pediatric dentist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, in an interview with Romper. “That could be at 18 months or 18 years.”
Issac says flossing is key to good dental health — it plays a huge part in preventing cavities, tartar, and plaque buildup, even at young ages.
“Even for kids who eat relatively healthy, it’s still important to floss to get the habit down, and to remove any type of moderately sugary food, like bread or pretzels. If one tooth gets a cavity, it can spread to the tooth touching it. You can easily go from zero cavities to two to four quickly,” she says.
Teaching toddlers to floss doesn't have to be difficult. Courtesy of Dr. Erin Issac.
Stanford Children’s Health says that, technically, you should be flossing your toddler’s teeth just like you would your own: grab the floss, rip off a piece, and move it up and down between all of their teeth and slightly below the gum line. The organization also recommends using flosser tools, which makes sense — using a long-handled flosser sounds much easier than trying to floss inside your toddler’s tiny mouth with string wrapped around your adult-sized fingers.
“Particularly with flossers, I like to use ones that don’t have a pointed end,” says Issac. “There are specific kids’ ones from all the major brands, and they usually have fun colors, might be flavored, and have rounded edges to they don’t injure the child. I don’t recommend water picks because they can be hard to use on someone else.”
When her toddler patients’ parents want to begin flossing at home, Issac recommends they let their little one watch a parent or older sibling floss so they can see what it’s all about. Work up from once a week to once a day until it’s just another part of their routine.
“I tell parents they can hand the flosser to their toddler because most stuff eventually makes it into their mouth. Then they at least know what they look, feel, and taste like, and they’re not terrified of this brand-new thing,” she says. “Toddlers only have so much of an attention span, so I highly recommend parents brush their teeth in the bathtub and maybe they can floss while you’re sitting in bed together reading.”
Wondering about other toothy issues, like how to prep your kid for a cleaning or when their first dentist visit should be? You can always visit the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s FAQ page to learn more about keeping your kid’s teeth healthy at every age. Or, check out these kid-friendly flossers for your little one’s first lesson.
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Erin Issac, DMD, board-certified pediatric dentist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine