How To Get Toddler To Brush Teeth

Dr. Laura,
My toddler hates it when I brush her teeth. Brushing teeth is one of the last things we do after the bath and before bed, when she is tired -- she is crazy then, throwing a fit. I really don't want her to get cavities. Should I just hold her down and brush? 

I know how frustrating it is when a toddler won't cooperate, but holding a child down is always a bad idea. It's guaranteed to make them hate brushing their teeth. And it undermines your relationship. So I really don't like the idea many dentists suggest, that two adults work together to lie the child down and hold him down while one person brushes his teeth. Imagine if someone did this to you. How could it not be traumatizing?

Toddlers don't really understand why they need to brush their teeth, no matter what stories we tell them about cavities. And having someone else put something in your mouth and move it around is simply scary, or at the very least uncomfortable. Most of us don't enjoy visiting the dentist every six months; but here we are asking our kids to open their mouths for us move something around in there, twice a day. No wonder kids resist.

That doesn't mean you should give up on brushing your toddler's teeth, though. Reconciling those two things can be tough, but I have seen many families do it. Basically, you start small and keep at it, just as you do with every other habit. They all brush, eventually. Here are some tips that will get your child brushing by herself, sooner.

1. Play "copycat." Since most kids this age enjoy learning by copying us but want to "do it themselves," brush together looking into the mirror. Let your child "brush" her own teeth while you brush yours, copying you in the mirror. She won't do a thorough job, but it's a good start and teaches her that SHE brushes. That way she doesn't have to rebel totally against brushing teeth even if she goes through periods where she won't let you brush her teeth. Make it a fun game.

2. Your job is to "check" that no food is hiding. Mostly in the beginning, she will just chew on the toothbrush, but she'll get comfortable with the toothbrush being in her mouth. Then, you can help her finish up. This is the tricky part, because most humans hate having someone else stick things in their mouth. Keep this VERY short in the beginning, and be sure to make it fun. Just say "Yay! You brushed your own teeth! Now I'm going to check to make sure there is no food still hiding." Tell her what a great job she did brushing as you swipe each side, adding "I see a tiny piece of pasta (or whatever you had for dinner) hiding right there! I'll get that for you." All children are motivated by mastery, so let her feel good about her achievement of brushing even though at the moment you're really the one doing it. Over time, she'll get better and better.

3. Keep it VERY short! Having someone poke around in your mouth can seem interminable even to an adult. The idea now is to get her used to the idea of brushing. Your job, remember, is just to "check" which means a quick swipe over all the teeth. You can lengthen the amount of brushing time by using songs and timers as she gets used to this and more cooperative.

4. When you're "checking" -- which is really brushing her teeth -- make it fun. For instance, you might say you see a giraffe or a tiger in there that you have to catch. Or chase the sugar bugs. Or count her teeth. 

5. Sing while you're "checking." "This is the way we brush our teeth, after we eat our dinner" or "The toothbrush in the mouth goes round and round" can be very helpful because singing increases the fun level and reinforces the routine. Maybe most important, it assures the child that the brushing is time limited, because they can count on it ending when the song ends. 

6. Use sound to start good habits. Encourage her to say "Teeee" (for the front teeth) and "Ahhhh" (for the back teeth) and roar like an animal so her mouth is open wide while brushing. This also makes the whole process more of an exciting game.

7. If she resists, take turns. Toddlers are beginning to understand "My turn!" so you can say "Baby's turn to brush Mommy!" and then "Now it's dolly's turn!" and "Now it's Mommy's turn to brush Baby!"

8. For kids who resist, start the brushing task with something fun. Anything that gets her giggling will make her more amenable to cooperating. For instance:

  • Let her brush the stuffed animals' or dolls' "teeth."
  • Brush all over her body -- her arm, her ear. "Is this where I should brush?"

9. Offering choices helps kids cooperate. To "finish up" her teeth, does she want her favorite stuffed animal or doll to brush, or a puppet? (Puppets make it easier for you to hold the toothbrush but she may prefer her doll. Of course, you can also offer her a choice between two puppets.) Hold the doll or puppet and let them "finish up" her mouth. Awkward, but it gets the job done.

10. Be sure to read books with her about toddlers brushing their teeth. When kids read about brushing teeth, the whole process is normalized, instead of feeling like a hardship they have to endure. You'll find some recommendations at the end of this article. 

11. Watch videos with her that show toddlers brushing their teeth. Many parents find this motivates kids even better than books, because most toddlers want to mimic other kids. For instance:

Elmo

KidsSongs

Toddler Brushing

12. Make brushing teeth a reliable part of the routine. Experiment until you find the right timing. For instance, try it BEFORE the bath so she is not so tired. Or even during the bath. More awkward for you, but she will be more playful and relaxed. 

13. If your child still resists, get her giggling about toothbrushing to help get her work out her feelings about it. Do this during the day, at a time when you aren't actually brushing and she feels more relaxed. For instance, make a game of letting her brush your teeth to reverse the power dynamic and get her giggling, which releases the same pent-up emotions as crying. Here's a terrific post (from one of my favorite blogs) about why doing this helps kids: http://superprotectivefactor.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/special-time-helps-with-teethbrushing/

14. Consider skipping toothpaste. Most dentists say that's fine at this age, and since most kids don't like toothpaste, you might experiment to see if that makes your child more open to brushing. The other option is to buy a bunch of kids' toothpaste (Toms of Maine for instance, prides itself on more natural ingredients) one after the other, trying them and giving her choices. Maybe she will love one and that will give her incentive.

15. Distract and cede control wherever possible. It can be very helpful to let the child hold a different toothbrush (or even one in each of her hands) while you brush her teeth. Let her be in charge of everything you can about brushing -- the toothbrush she chooses, the toothpaste (or not), the song, the position she is in, how many times you have to jump up and down before she's done, etc. Many parents say that simultaneously letting the little one brush their teeth WHILE they brush hers is the best distraction.

If she resists, don't get into a power struggle. Just "Play" toothbrushing a little bit using the games above -- for instance, brushing her elbow -- so she sees it is still on the agenda. This will also give her a chance to work out some of her resistance by giggling about your game. Then try again the following night. 



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