Helping kids care for their teeth

Flossing may not be fun, but it’s important

Ben Justie, 7, of Arlington Heights brushes his teeth twice a day. He even flosses. But he doesn’t like it.

"I lost my floss and didn’t want to ask for more," he says.

It’s a common complaint. Children often don’t like flossing, but if they don’t floss to remove food and plaque between their teeth, they miss an important part of oral hygiene, and are at a higher risk of developing cavities and gum disease.

"Everyone needs to floss," says pediatric dentist Mary Hayes of Pediatric Dental Health Associates in Chicago. "For children, flossing should begin when two of their teeth are touching, somewhere between the ages of 4 and 7."

And, according to the American Dental Association, kids who learn to floss early are more likely to continue the habit as adults.

But children 7 and under may not have the motor skills to floss properly without help, Hayes says.

Pediatric dentists can show kids—and their parents—how to floss properly and how to avoid common flossing mistakes. For example, many people, adults included, have too much floss bridging the distance between their fingers. The distance should be short, no more than an inch. Much longer and the floss will have too much slack, which means it won’t scrape the tooth well.

Children also need to be taught not to jab the floss into their gums, which can be damaged by such rough treatment. Instead, they should pull the floss around the tooth in the shape of the letter C, and pull it to scrape first one side, then the other, of each tooth.

The American Dental Association Web site,, offers an animated tutorial for parents and children that demonstrates proper flossing technique. During National Children’s Dental Health Month in February, parents can download coloring and activity sheets that encourage kids to take care of their teeth.

But what if your child has learned the proper flossing technique and still resists? Try different tools and types of floss. Experiment with brands, textures and flavors of floss. Buy a flossing stick, which kids might think is more fun to use than wrapping floss around their fingers.

Ben gets excited about the prospect of mint-flavored floss.

"I bet that would taste better," he says.

Hayes also emphasizes how important it is to work with your children on flossing. It’s important to make flossing a regular part of a child’s oral hygiene, but she cautions against forcing kids to floss. If your child is distracted, floss only one or two teeth and then let it go for that day.

"Be patient," she says. "Don’t push it and your children will come around."

Michelle Sussman

Kids Eat Chicago

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