kid on dental chair

Every February we celebrate National Children’s Dental Health Month, supported by the American Dental Association (ADA). It first began in 1941 as National Children’s Dental Health Day. The topic’s popularity grew so that in 1981, the day became a month-long focus on children’s dental health. National Dental Health Month focuses on community, through sharing education and activities in schools, clubs, and libraries to help inspire good oral he​alth and dental habits. Taking good care of our teeth is important, yet many people have questions about dental health: When you should start brushing kids’ teeth? What are the best ways to brush and floss? Which types of toothpaste are best? We’ll answer those questions and provide you with some dental health tips to help you keep your pearly whites healthy.

​When should parents begin dental health with their children?

Dental health should start before an infant’s teeth begin to show. Use a soft cloth to wipe out the mouths of nursing or bottle-fed infants. Infants should not go to bed with a bottle of milk or juice. The sugars in those liquids stay on the baby’s teeth throughout the night and can cause baby bottle tooth decay.

Timing of a first dental appointment is up to the parents. They can look in their child’s mouth for any signs of a problem, which may prompt a dental visit. Otherwise, the first dental visit is recommended between 6 months and 3 years of age. Dental visits twice a year are important for both children and adults. Some people need a dental cleaning only once a year, depending on their dental health and habits. It’s important to discuss your options with your dentist and come up with the plan best for you.

Parents are important to their child’s daily dental health between dental visits. They can help teach proper brushing with the small, soft-bristled toothbrush recommended for children. Those under age 3 should have a parent brush their teeth with a non-fluoride toothpaste. Children 6 and under should be supervised while brushing their own teeth. One tip for finding out if your child is properly brushing their teeth is have them brush yours. This lets you know if your child is missing any important areas and if they are brushing long enough to get teeth clean. Products called disclosing tablets/liquids are useful for children and adults. They tint any plaque remaining on the teeth; for example, a pink disclosing liquid tints the plaque pink. Dentists and dental hygienists are willing to answer your questions and are a great resource for making informed decisions about your child’s dental health.

For parents whose child isn’t spending enough time brushing, apps for Android and Apple devices play songs or short videos. When the song or video is over, the child knows it’s time to stop brushing. You can also search YouTube for videos to help children with brushing. Many not only provide a timer but also give helpful reminders of where your child should be brushing.​

A cavity isn’t just a hole in your tooth. It’s actually a disease.

​Plaque is sticky bacteria constantly growing in your mouth. As it grows it can cause decay in the form of cavities. Plaque buildup can also irritate your gums and in severe cases, cause the gums to bleed. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identifies cavities as the most chronic disease in America for children between ages 6 and 11. Tooth decay in teens from 14 to 17 occurs four times more often than asthma. Acknowledging that cavities are a type of disease and starting good dental habits at an early age can help reduce the risk and severity.

tooth care suppliesHow often should you brush/floss your teeth?

Dental professionals recommend we brush our teeth three times a day and floss once a day. This is not always feasible, as many of us don’t carry a toothbrush with us when we’re away from home. Thorough brushing twice a day and flossing once helps maintain good oral health.

Using a soft-bristled toothbrush, manual or electric, helps decrease irritation to the gums. Brush your gums and teeth gently for a couple minutes in the morning and evening. If you’re not sure how long you’re brushing, time yourself. You’ll be surprised at how long two to three minutes is! Brushing your teeth in the evening before bedtime is particularly important.

Flossing is just as important as brushing. Flossing not only cleans around teeth but also in-between them under the gum line, where a toothbrush doesn’t easily reach plaque. Flossing cleans plaque from the front and back of your teeth. So if you’re not flossing, you’re missing two sides of each tooth — or half your teeth equaling half your mouth. When using floss, move it around, letting it hug the tooth to remove as much plaque as possible.

​Top Tips

  • There’s no wrong time to floss. Flossing before or after brushing keeps your teeth clean.
  • If your toothbrush is irritating your gums, try using a soft-bristled brush for cleaning your gums.
  • When using an ADA-approved, at-home whitening kit, make sure your teeth are clean. The whitening agents work only on enamel, not on plaque. You wouldn’t want striped teeth!​

What about toothpaste and mouthwash?

Dentists recommend you choose a toothpaste with fluoride. Over the course of a day, some fluoride is lost off the tops of your teeth. Using a toothpaste with fluoride helps replace it. Choose the toothpaste with the flavor and price you prefer; check the package to ensure it contains fluoride.

People like using mouthwash because it leaves a fresh, clean feeling, but mouthwashes don’t do much cleaning. The mechanical action of the toothbrush and floss keeps your teeth clean. Many people believe mouthwash helps prevent bad breath. Most bad breath comes from sinus-related conditions, different types of foods, or poor dental hygiene. Plaque contains different types of bacteria, and bacteria can cause odor. Mouthwash freshens breath, but other steps are needed to address the causes of bad breath. A dentist or orthodontist may recommend you use a fluoride mouthwash if you are more prone to plaque build-up.

Need help accessing dental health? Visit the Indiana State Department of Health’s Oral Health Access to Service webpage. You’ll find a list of programs and organizations that provide resources for dental treatments for residents of Indiana. 

How does poor oral health impact general health?​

Your oral health is linked to what’s going on with the rest of your body.

Oral Health Links to General Health​

  • Bacteria from the mouth that enters the bloodstream can contribute to heart disease. (One way for bacteria to enter the blood is when gums are inflamed)
  • People with longstanding gum disease are more likely to have strokes.
  • Bacteria in the mouth, if allowed to collect, can reach the lungs and increase the occurrence of pneumonia.
  • The presence of any kind of gum inflammation makes regulating blood sugar levels more difficult for a person with diabetes. Eliminating gum inflammation can directly improve this.
  • People who experience poor oral health are also less likely to eat foods that are more nutritious because they may have difficulty chewing or pain eating.​

Current research is evaluating connections between gum disease and preterm births, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney disease. 

Mother teaching baby girl teeth brushingHow can you best protect your teeth?

Brush twice a day and floss once a day. Use toothpaste with fluoride and visit your dentist twice a year. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and other foods that contain naturally occurring fluoride. If you are in an Indiana 4-H club or are a 4-H club leader in Indiana, consider incorporating dental health lessons and activities into your club meetings, and consider inviting a dental hygienist to a club meeting in February.

If you are interested in additional dental health resources, contact Angie Frost at for more information. Visit our Indiana 4-H Facebook page (@Indiana4H) and tell us how you practice good dental health.​

Don’t forget to “Pledge your health to better living” by brushing and flossing daily! As a wise person once said, “You don’t have to floss all your teeth — just the ones you want to keep!”

Angie Frost is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension and registered dietitian. She leads a team of county Purdue Extension staff, and collaborates with campus specialists and faculty to provide opportunities for Indiana 4-H youth to learn about healthy living.

Brenda Detzner has been a dental hygienist for 40 years. She is a 4-H alumna and has a master’s degree with a focus on dental public health.

Arin Weidner is a 4-H Extension Specialist for Purdue Extension. She supports Indiana 4-H programming by creating technology-facilitated curriculum and learning opportunities. She collaborates with Purdue Extension staff and faculty to develop new ideas for learning in 4-H for youth and adults.​