Baby brushing his teeth

National Smile Month: Keeping the decay away

Whether its their first tooth or their first visit to the dentist, a child’s early experiences of oral health can have an impact on the rest of their lives. This National Smile Month (14 May - 14 June) Dr Nigel Carter OBE, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation, explains.

All parents know about the daily struggles they have with their children. Seemingly little things can trigger a total meltdown from young children. Things like putting on socks or brushing their hair are common points of tension and brushing their teeth definitely falls into this same category.

I don’t think it’s too much for me to say that many young children are simply not concerned with brushing their teeth. Many see it as an inconvenience rather than an essential part of their day. Getting them to understand this is a huge task.

But this is vitally important.

It is a staggering thought, but around eight or nine children in every school class will have already developed tooth decay by the time they reach primary school. That’s approaching a quarter of a million children in each primary school year and around 3.3 million young people aged 0-14.

This is completely inexcusable. Every single case of tooth decay is preventable – we must get children to understand and help to prevent this. We believe that this starts with education as early as possible.

During the early years, a child’s experiences of oral health can impact on the rest of their lives – from their first tooth to their first visit to a dentist. It helps set them up for a lifetime of oral health.

Parents can help support this by introducing an oral health routine, explaining the effects of diet on oral health and even helping to establish relationships with dental professionals.

Starting early is essential if we are going to help stop tooth decay and give children healthier, brighter smiles.

Dental Buddy

At the Oral Health Foundation, we understand the importance of building oral health routines at an early age.

We developed the Dental Buddy programme to help people to deliver effective, fun and engaging oral health education to children of all ages.

The aim of Dental Buddy is to help young children achieve our five key outcomes, all framed around a centralised theme of better oral health:

  • staying safe
  • being healthy
  • enjoying and achieving
  • making a positive contribution
  • achieving economic wellbeing

Parents, early years educators and healthcare professionals, have a vitally important role to play in educating young people about their oral health. 

The importance of early education

Education on oral health must start before a child starts school. 

Suggested activities include getting children to use a mirror to look into their mouths and asking them to explain what they can see.

Counting how many teeth they have is another idea – they should have 20.

Ask your children what teeth look like, and what they are used for. You should explain that it is very important to look after your teeth and ask them if they know how they can take care of their teeth.

You can also demonstrate how to keep teeth clean, using a soft toy and toothbrush.

Show your children how to brush teeth and get them to mime brushing for two minutes. This will teach them how long they need to brush for – doing it to a song can help make it fun.

Making tooth brushing fun and engaging children with activities is key here.

If children can get involved with their oral health through play, they can take these healthy habits with them into school and the rest of their lives.

Reaching out

You could go even further and ask your child's nursery to contact a local dental clinic — they are are often pleasantly surprised at how willing they are to give up some of their time.

A visit from the dentist or dental nurse can make a fun and engaging activity. Often it can have a profoundly positive effect on children’s attitude towards the dentist in the future.

Building a relationship with a dentist in this way can help children overcome the ‘fear factor’ some children inherit regarding the dentist. If they can see that dental professionals are there to help them and not anything to be afraid of, they are being set up for better oral health for life.

Dental Buddy’s messages for children

Brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day, using a fluoride toothpaste.

Have a balanced diet and learn the importance of limiting how often you have sugary foods and drinks.

Visit the dentist regularly, as often as they recommend.

The bitter truth

1/3 of all children start school each year with signs of tooth decay

40% of children do not visit the dentist regularly

Decay is currently the number one reason for child hospital admissions in the UK

Find out more

Visit the Dental Buddy oral heath education programme to download free resources.


This article has been adapted from a print article that first appeared in Under 5 magazine

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