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Why it's important to help kids brush up on their oral hygiene

TV presenter Helen Skelton has cycled to the South Pole and kayaked the Amazon - now she's taking on the challenge of getting children to look after their teeth, writes Lisa Salmon

TV presenter Helen Skelton has faced many huge challenges ranging from kayaking the length of the Amazon and running a 78-mile ultra-marathon in Namibia, to cycling to the South Pole.

But her latest challenge is considerably less gruelling and much closer to home - she's teaching her young sons how to brush their teeth properly.

The 35-year-old, who's best known for presenting Blue Peter and Countryfile, has hung up her expedition challenge boots to concentrate on looking after her two sons, Louis (1) and three-year-old Ernie, with her rugby player husband, Richie Myler.

She's fronting Simplyhealth's Big Family Brush Up campaign, which is challenging families to really focus on their brushing habits for a four-week period to ensure children are brushing thoroughly for two minutes, twice a day, and filling in brushing charts to prove it.

"Until I had kids I had no idea how bad children's teeth can get, and how easily," Helen says. "I really took it for granted and I think many others do too. There's a lot more sugar in children's diets than ever before, and that goes hand-in-hand with a lot more pressure on parents to tackle this."

Skelton says taking on the challenge is well worth the effort: "Being a parent is constantly trying to do the right thing by your child - you can be made to feel guilty over everything from bedtime to snacking.

"I don't want parents to feel guilty over the fact that everyone struggles to teach brushing. But two minutes isn't a long time, and we shouldn't let our children's oral health routines fall by the wayside."

Here she tells us about her own experiences with her children.

What challenges do you face getting your children to brush their teeth?

"My eldest son, Ernie, hates the taste of toothpaste, so we have to go through this whole routine of putting the paste on and then pretending to wash it off so he thinks the taste has gone.

"He doesn't mind brushing in the evening because we've established it as part of his bedtime routine, but mornings can prove more difficult.

"My babies have both loved to chew anything and everything from a young age. I started brushing as soon as their first tooth appeared, and was able to start teaching Louis about oral health properly from 10 months, and Ernie from about 14 months - but it's definitely easier with Louis as he wants to copy his big brother.

"Louis has even got to the point where he'll point and shout for the toothbrush, even though he's only got a few teeth - it's great to see him copying Ernie and it definitely makes it easier for me as a mum. Louis has eight teeth now, so I'm making sure to brush every last one of them."

Have you got any tips for parents trying to get their kids to brush properly?

"I find using a brushing egg timer with Ernie really useful - he loves watching the sand fall through as he brushes and sees it as a race. That keeps him engaged as he's really competitive, so anything that's a challenge he loves."

Do your children eat healthily?

"I don't eat or buy 'diet' food as such, I just think it's all about balance. I think healthy eating has become so complicated, you start to worry, 'Have I had enough of this fat?' or 'Have I had too much fruit?' - realistically it just becomes white noise. I like to abide by the rule of 'if my grandma would eat it then it's fine'. Although saying that, she probably wouldn't eat avocado on toast - which I love.

"The boys do eat healthy. I always leave out food like cherry tomatoes, hummus, carrot sticks, yoghurts, melon, ham sandwiches, raspberries, cherries, avocado, organic chicken, and they love vegetables from my dad's garden."

Do you limit your children's consumption of sugary food and drinks?

"All kids love a sugary treat, but I try my hardest not to talk about or acknowledge them on a day-to-day basis.

"Of course I'm not naive enough to think they won't come into contact with them as they grow up, and Ernie does have the occasional treat now and then. If he's had a sugar overload, I'll try to distract him until he forgets about whatever it is he wants.

"I wouldn't say I avoid anything, but having said that, I don't drink sugary drinks and won't give them to my kids for the sake of their teeth."

Have you taken your children to the dentist yet?

"They go once a year - I think the more regularly you take them, the less daunting and dramatic it will be. I want to make it a regular part of their lives.

"Ernie's been for simple check-ups, and he loves it. He loved the reclining chair and the big sunglasses, plus the dental nurse was amazing with children. He just thought it was a brilliant day out - I'm hoping it stays that way as he grows up."

Did you look after your teeth when you were a child?

"I suffered from problems with my teeth in the past, so I'm conscious to make sure my kids don't experience the same.

"When I was younger I looked after my teeth, but I used to eat multiple packets of sugary strong mints a week, and I really regret that - I don't touch them now. I live off toast now instead ... apple, avocado, I think anything goes on toast!"

  • The Big Family Brush Up is providing brushing tips in The Little Book of Healthy Smiles (on denplan.co.uk), and Skelton says: "Anything that makes parenting a little easier is a big win in my books!"

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