We all know the importance of oral health. Teeth are meant to be permanent, and if our smiles are going to last a lifetime they need consistent and effective care each and every day. Likewise, we all know that we need to be brushing and flossing regularly, eating the best diet we can, and ensuring that we make regular trips to the dentist. However, many of these things are part of our daily routine and thus rely on good habits. And as many of us know, establishing good habits is often a challenge. So how can we go about building better oral health habits? Let’s answer that question by taking a look at what habits are and the role they fill in our lives.
What are habits, exactly? There are a number of definitions of a habit, but the best one we’ve found is that habits are small, consistent, daily decisions. In other words, the little things we do without thinking just because they’re built into our behavior and routines. Some habits we cultivate consciously, others develop over time on their own. In either case, researchers at Duke University estimate that roughly 40% of our daily actions are habitual, which means to a great degree we are the sum of our habits.
This leads us to the first step in building better oral health habits: being aware of our current habits and the changes we’d like to make. Take some time to really think about your daily routine and where oral health fits in. Do you brush and floss after meals? Are you eating healthy snacks or junk foods? Are you brushing your teeth thoroughly and flossing effectively or just going through the motions in a rush? Identifying the areas that need improvement is always a step in building better habits, so don’t be shy about facing the truth.
The next step is to start with simple, small changes. If you want to get in the habit of brushing and flossing your teeth thoroughly after each meal, pick a day to start and make it a point to do a good job with your teeth cleaning after breakfast and dinner. Once that habit is established, which generally takes three or four weeks, then focus on finding time to do the same after lunch each day. Due to work schedules, mid-day oral health care habits are a real challenge for most people. That’s why we’re using them in this example, but feel free to adapt to your personal needs and challenges.
One strategy that works for a lot of people is known as behavior stacking or habit stacking. If you have a regular habit or routine that’s part of your day, performing the new habit immediately after the established one can help reinforce the new habit more quickly. If you take a moment to have coffee on your porch every morning, brushing your teeth right after helps you integrate the new routine into your day. It’s one approach that’s proven effective for many, and another tool in your habit-building toolbox.
While there are a number of approaches to building new habits out there, the most important thing is keeping the end goal in mind. In this case, the end goal of building better oral health habits is ensuring that your teeth and gums are healthy and happy and that your smile is the best it can be. By building and maintaining good habits–and making regular visits to your dentist for exams and cleanings–you’ll be well on your way!