Flossing for Kids: What You Need to Know

Most adults aren’t daily flossers. So I often ask myself, if the parents aren’t flossing, what I can do or say as a dentist to encourage my adult patients to change that pattern for their young kids? But before we jump into ways parents can get their kids to floss (or actually do the flossing for their kids), let’s take a minute to understand why flossing is so critical for children. 

Why It’s Important

The movement of our cheeks and tongue, combined with the constant flow of our saliva, does a pretty good job of cleaning and protecting the parts of our teeth that our toothbrush touches. However, the tenacious food, plaque, and bacteria trapped between our teeth stay right where they are even after all the movement of our cheeks, tongue, and toothbrush throughout the day. So, while I would never tell one of my patients not to brush their teeth (it’s a critical twice-daily task), if I was personally focused on cavity prevention and only had time to do one of the two, I would floss my teeth over brushing my teeth. 

The next reason that flossing is so important for young kids is that the enamel layer of baby teeth is very thin compared to adult teeth. So, a cavity doesn’t have to travel very far at all before it’s irreversible and needs a filling. This is especially concerning because disease breeds more disease. So, when a child with cavities is in mixed dentition, meaning that they have both baby and adult teeth in their mouth, there’s a sort of step stool effect. While adult teeth are more resilient to decay, if you have a baby tooth with a cavity next to an adult tooth, that adult tooth is going to decay much easier than if it were next to a completely healthy baby tooth. 

The last reason that flossing is so important for children is to help them develop a healthy and happy relationship with their dentist. The most common cavities in children are ones that develop between the teeth and can be prevented by flossing. Getting cavities filled at a young age (and receiving shots as part of that process) often shapes a child’s attitude toward the dentist for life. So, by flossing your child’s teeth, you can ensure their association with the dentist consists of watching a show on the overhead TV, getting their teeth cleaned, and getting a prize on the way out the door. When a child looks forward to their dental visits, it sets them up for better lifelong oral health.

How You Can Do It

Alright, let’s jump into the reason we’re all here today. What can you as a parent do to encourage your kids to floss? First of all, let’s make one thing clear. For the first 5 years of your kid’s life, you should be flossing their teeth for them. Up until that age, they lack the motivation, the dexterity, and the focus to do a good job. One of the things that I enjoy least about my job is when I tell a parent that their four-year-old child has cavities, and then the parent glares at the child and says something like, “You see. This is what happens when you don’t floss like I told you to.” So, now that we’ve established that it’s a parent’s responsibility, what is the best way to execute the actual flossing?

I find that laying my child on a bed with their feet in the middle of the bed and their head at the edge of the bed works best. I then kneel directly behind them and have them lift their chin in the air so I have maximum visibility. For the actual floss, you absolutely need some kind of handled flosser. You can either get the colorful single-use picks, the longer toothbrush-shaped flosser, or something like the Slate Electric Flosser. With their tiny mouths, it’s nearly impossible to fit adult-sized fingers with traditional floss and still see what you’re doing. To make the flossing on the edge of the bed more enjoyable for the child and help them to sit still, I often give my child my phone with a video they like. The nice thing about flossing kids' teeth is that unlike brushing, where you should be brushing for a full two minutes, when you’ve flossed every tooth, you’re finished. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the job gets done. Another way to help your child lay still while you floss their teeth is to create a flossing chart. You can post the chart close to their bed and when they let you floss their teeth, they either get a sticker for their chart or they get to make a checkmark on the chart. Then, once they get a certain number of stickers or check marks they can earn little prizes!

Once your child is old enough to tie their own shoelaces they are capable of flossing their own teeth. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that even if your child has the dexterity to floss, you will need to be the judge on whether they have the motivation and the focus to floss properly between each tooth. You can assess this while standing near them as they floss while looking into a mirror. If your child has the desire to floss on their own, but you notice that the job isn’t getting done very well, a good way to handle this is to tell them that they can floss first and you will check right after. You can then explain what you are doing as you’re doing it so that they can hear and see what’s being done. While the sticker chart may be more motivating for younger kids, I have found that screen time is more motivating for my older kids. If they floss well, they can watch a 10-minute YouTube video. No matter what you do to motivate your kids (or yourself), try everything you can to make daily flossing a part of their routine. Not only does it set them up for a lifetime of healthy teeth and gums but they will be so grateful you helped them build that habit.