Smiles in Training

Appears in the March 2024 issue.

Helping kids build lifelong healthy dental habits

Dental health illustrations

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: If you want your teeth to last a lifetime, you have to start young. “Childhood dental habits play a crucial role in shaping a person’s attitudes and practices later in life,” says pediatric dentist Neelon Patel, of Pinky Promise Pediatric Dentistry in Naperville. “Developing good dental habits from an early age sets the foundation for a lifetime of oral health, while positive experiences with dental care during childhood can help reduce dental anxiety and encourage individuals to prioritize their oral health as adults.”

She should know. She’s penned a book on the subject. Published in 2022, her picture book Jaiden & Zatie Visit the Dentist shows kids what to expect at their first dental visit and helps quell any jitters.

‘Jaiden & Zatie Visit the Dentist’ by Dr. Neelon Patel

As for preventive care, Patel points to several crucial habits that kids should practice, practice, practice early on—and that families should work to reinforce—to promote long-term oral health. “Parents should always try to remember that patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement are key when helping kids develop good dental habits,” she says. “Making dental care a fun and interactive experience can go a long way in overcoming any challenges.”

Regular brushing and flossing

While many kids may find it difficult to brush their teeth for the recommended two minutes (ideally using fluoride toothpaste), Patel suggests using a timer or playing a favorite song to make it more enjoyable. And, starting as soon as a child has two teeth that touch, flossing is a great habit for parents to help cultivate—ideally by demonstrating it themselves. “Brushing and flossing are the foundation of good oral hygiene, helping prevent the build-up of plaque and bacteria that can lead to tooth decay and gum disease,” she says. “These are simple and effective habits that, when practiced consistently, can have a significant impact on long-term dental health.”

Dr. Neelon Patel
“Preventive care is not only about addressing existing issues but also about maintaining a healthy smile and overall well-being.” —pediatric dentist Neelon Patel

Maintaining a healthy diet

Limit sugary snacks and drinks, which can lead to plaque buildup and tooth decay. While cutting back on these types of temptations can be an uphill battle, Patel says here again that it helps when parents can set a good example by practicing healthy eating habits themselves while encouraging their children to make healthier choices.

Going for regular dental checkups and cleanings

Many kids (and adults) have a fear of going to the dentist. Patel and her colleagues always go out of their way to create a calm, supportive environment to help relieve this kind of anxiety. The goal, she says, is to make sure there’s as little as possible standing in the way of the regular checkups and cleanings that are so important to maintaining good oral health and preventing dental issues before they become serious. “Preventive care is not only about addressing existing issues but also about maintaining a healthy smile and overall well-being,” she says.


Photos: Kelly Alexander/Monarch Photo (Patel); Folksnfables (book cover); iStock