If your baby isn’t eating solid foods or doesn’t have teeth yet, cleaning their tongue might seem unnecessary. But oral hygiene isn’t only for older kids and adults — babies need their mouths clean, too, and the earlier you start, the better.

Here’s what you need to know about oral care for newborns through toddlers, as well as tips on how to teach older kids to clean their own mouth.

Bacteria exist in a baby’s mouth the same way they exist in your mouth.

But babies have less saliva than you, which makes it harder for their little mouths to wash away milk residue. This can also build up on their tongue, causing a white coating. Cleaning their tongue loosens and removes the residue.

Using a damp cloth to clean your baby’s tongue also introduces them to oral cleaning early, so it’s not a huge shock when you clean their mouth with a toothbrush later on.

Cleaning a baby’s tongue and gums is a relatively simple process, and you don’t need a lot of supplies. The only things you’ll need are warm water and a washcloth or a piece of gauze.

First, thoroughly wash your own hands with soap and water. Then, to begin cleaning, lay your baby across your lap with their head cradled in your hand. Then:

  • Dip a gauze- or cloth-covered finger into the warm water.
  • Gently open your baby’s mouth, and then lightly rub their tongue in a circular motion using the cloth or gauze.
  • Softly rub your finger over your baby’s gums and on the inside of their cheeks, too.

You can also use a soft finger brush designed to gently massage and scrub away milk residue from your baby’s tongue and gums. Ideally, you should brush your baby’s tongue at least twice a day.

Glycerin and toothpaste

Glycerin is a colorless, sweet-tasting liquid that gives toothpaste its creamy texture. It’s also found in some skin and hair care products.

Glycerin is nontoxic and considered safe once you start your baby with a small amount toothpaste at around 6 months.

But neither toothpaste nor the glycerin in it are needed for cleaning the mouth of a newborn or young infant less than 6 months old. (Although the glycerin isn’t likely to be a problem, using toothpaste with such a little one can result in baby swallowing too much fluoride.)

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It’s important to note that a white coating on your baby’s tongue isn’t always due to milk. Sometimes, it’s caused by a condition called thrush.

Milk residue and thrush look similar. The difference is that you can wipe away milk residue. You can’t wipe away thrush.

Oral thrush is a fungal infection that develops in the mouth. It’s caused by oral candidiasis and leaves white spots on the tongue, gums, inside of the cheeks, and on the roof of the mouth.

Thrush requires treatment with an antifungal medication to stop the spread of the infection. So if that white coating doesn’t wipe away, contact your baby’s pediatrician.

Once your baby is at least 6 months old and has their first tooth, you can use a soft, kid-friendly toothbrush, along with toothpaste. Use this to clean any teeth that have come in.

You can also use the toothbrush to gently scrub your baby’s tongue and gums, or continue to use a finger brush, gauze, or washcloth until they’re a little older.

When giving toothpaste to a baby that’s at least 6 months old, you only need a small amount — about the amount of a rice grain. (And just assume they’re going to swallow it.) Once your child is at least 3 years old, you can increase the amount to pea-size.

Most toddlers can’t clean their own teeth, so you might have to supervise them until they’re between the ages of 6 and 9. But if they have enough hand coordination, you can start teaching them how to correctly brush their own teeth and tongue.

  1. To start, squeeze a little toothpaste on a wet toothbrush.
  2. Demonstrate by first brushing your own teeth (with your own toothbrush).
  3. Next, brush your child’s teeth with their toothbrush. As you brush, explain your actions. Highlight how you’re brushing the front and the back of their teeth.
  4. Let your kid give it a try and allow them to brush as you guide their hand. Once your child gets the hang of it, you can supervise as they brush their own teeth.

You should also show children how to gently clean their tongue using the toothbrush. Also, remind children not to swallow the toothpaste. Teach them to spit out any excess after brushing.

Along with brushing and tongue cleaning, regular checkups with a pediatric dentist are also important for babies and toddlers.

As a general rule of thumb, schedule your child’s first dental visit within 6 months of getting their first tooth, or by 1 year old, whichever comes first. The dentist will check the overall health of their teeth, jaw, and gums. They’ll also check for oral motor developmental problems and tooth decay.

Good oral hygiene starts at an early age. Although your child won’t remember having their tongue and gums cleaned as a newborn, this routine contributes to their overall oral health, and helps them maintain good habits as they become older.