Tips to Get Your Kids to Brush Their Teeth

A Parent’s Guide To Winning the Toothbrush Wars

The early years are full of parent-child battles: getting your little one to put on (or take off) clothes, encouraging them to please eat those vegetables and telling them they really do have to stay in the shopping cart despite their overwhelming desire to run the aisles. Let’s not forget tooth brushing, which for many parents is no exception to the list of things young children sometimes flat out refuse to do.

“We’re working on that right now,” says Chris Sofge, mother of 4-year-old Eva and 2-year-old Henry. “Eva actually does pretty good. Henry, not so good, but he’s learning. We try to get Henry to let us help him – so his teeth actually get brushed – but he is refusing big time right now.”

What seems to have worked best for the Sofges of Crownsville, Md., is to make proper oral hygiene a family affair.

“The best way for our kids has been to brush our teeth with them,” she says. “We model good tooth brushing and make it something we all do together at the same times every day, so it’s a routine. It helps to exaggerate the movements so they learn how to do it, and talk to them about how to brush teeth and why it is important.”

Such a strategy is critical in promoting dental care from an early age, experts say.

“Your example is best – let them see you do it,” says Dr. Cynthia Sherwood, a dentist in private practice in Independence, Kan., who serves as spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. “That doesn’t mean they’re still not going to fight you some days, but it helps them build those habits.”

As frustrating as it can be, continuing to encourage a resistant youngster to have their teeth brushed is important, says Dr. Lisa Stimmel, a pediatric dentist in Centennial, Colo., and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

“The sooner you can get in there and clean their mouths, the more they’re going to think of it as an everyday thing and that it’s no big deal,” Stimmel says. “A lot of parents tend to think of tooth brushing as optional; but brushing their teeth isn’t optional just because they won’t cooperate. Sometimes that sounds pretty harsh, but the consequences of not doing it are worse.”

“Start taking care of your child’s teeth now, and your child can be cavity free,” she adds. “It takes education and it takes know-how and it takes effort on the parents’ part for that to happen.”

Aside from brushing together, experts and parents suggest the following ways to incorporate tooth brushing into your child’s busy lives – and hopefully make the activity a little fun in the process:

Let your toddler pick out his own toothbrush.

“Jake is 22 months old and can’t brush his teeth enough,” says Katie Gustafsson, of her son. “When he’s done we have to pry the Winnie-the-Pooh toothbrush out of his little hand – he just wants to start again.”

Gustafsson, who lives with her family in Sweden, credits the kid-friendly toothbrush as well as fruit-flavored toothpaste for Jake’s love of brushing. “The fight we have is getting the toothbrush back before he chews all the bristles off it,” she adds.

Drue Ann Hargis-Ramirez, of Pomona, Calif., also advocates this method, which she’s used with her 3-year-old son, Michael.

“I point out the ones for his age group, and he picks one or two. That makes it fun,” she says, adding she also buys “the itsy-bitsy travel-size toothpastes because he can easily unscrew and screw the lid and squeeze a bit out.”

Selecting a brush that’s developmentally appropriate is important, Stimmel says. This means taking into consideration your child’s level of dexterity and the number of teeth they have, she says. Also, make sure you’re comfortable with the handle size since you’ll be the one who will be brushing their teeth during these early years, she says.

Go beyond the bathroom sink.

“Our children have always brushed their teeth in the bathtub,” says Hilary Evans, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the mother of Nathan Ferrand, 4, and Strata Ferrand, 2. “Because they only get a tiny bit of toothpaste, there isn’t much to spit out into the water, and rinsing the brushes under the running faucet is a major thrill for them.”

Evans, whose daughter can be fidgety when getting her teeth brushed, also received this tip from her daughter’s pediatric dentist: It sometimes takes three people to do the job.

“One of us wraps her legs on either side of our waist and bends her backwards onto the other’s lap,” Evans says of times she’s brushed her daughter’s teeth outside of the bathtub. “The person who has her on their lap will open her mouth and be able to get to all of her teeth.”

This is great advice, says Stimmel.

“The best way is to get up over the patient,” she says, adding that sitting your child on the bathroom counter and coming at her from the front puts her in a vulnerable position and possibly may cause her to gag. Instead, try laying her down, she says.

Be creative and have fun with it, Stimmel adds. “You can make it a game and tickle them,” she says. “Whatever it takes.”

Schedule a dental appointment.

Three years of age has been said to be the appropriate age to begin dental visits. However, experts recommend that children have their first dentist visit six months after their first primary tooth pops through. This initial visit will focus on prevention.

“That’s our primary goal, to teach the parent – particularly the first-time mom or dad – to prevent decay,” Stimmel says.

Reading books or watching videotapes about dentist visits may help, although Stimmel believes 1- and 2-year-olds may be too young to comprehend this important milestone.

Hargis-Ramirez recalled her son’s excitement when visiting the dentist. “He had his first dentist appointment at 37 months and was so excited you’d have thought he was a having a birthday party,” she says. “He didn’t even need me in the room with him. This was because he saw his big brother going to the dentist as well as Mommy, and they give them a cool little toy afterwards.”

Remember to get creative.

Sometimes acting downright silly does the trick, as some parents have discovered.

“I’ve always sung goofy songs to him, and we have one for brushing,” Wren says.

So how does the song go? Like this: “Brusha, brusha toofies; Brusha, brusha toofies; Toofies, toofies; Brusha, brusha toofies.”

Playing music or setting an egg timer to help your child understand the importance of brushing long enough also can prove helpful, Sherwood says.

Michelle Marie Alcido of Hammond, La., began incorporating singing into her son’s dental hygiene routine when he was 3.

“We do a reward system. I have tons of little treats – stickers, balloons. If he brushes his teeth without complaining he gets one,” Alcido says of her now 5-year-old son. “As soon as he begins to complain about having to brush, he has to sing me a song. It’s fun either way – but I don’t point that out.”

Liz Levine found success with getting her 3-year-old daughter Rachel to brush her teeth by tying the activity in with the privilege of watching a favorite television program.

“In the morning, we have a deal that she gets to watch TV if she’s ready for school before we’re ready to leave,” says Levine of Chicago. “I used to let her watch TV, then get her to brush her teeth before leaving – you can imagine how that went – but now I’ve sandwiched brushing teeth between breakfast and TV to make it part of the TV incentive.”

Above all, keep in mind that your child’s refusal to brush his teeth will pass, experts say. It’s not so much about the activity itself as it is about your youngster exerting her independence.

To ensure a healthy set of pearly whites in your child, experts advise parents to keep the following in mind:

  • Even before your child’s teeth erupt, it’s important to cleanse gums with a soft washcloth and water.
  • Only non-fluoridated toothpaste should be used with children under age 2. This is because they aren’t yet adept at spitting and may end up swallowing toothpaste.
  • Ideally, children need their teeth brushed twice a day. But brushing at least once a day is critical.
  • Dentists are seeing more cases of toddlers with cavities because of excessive use of sippy cups (filled with juice, not water). “There’s a direct relationship between the time your child’s teeth are exposed – and the number of cavities they’re going to develop,” says Dr. Lisa Stimmel, a pediatric dentist in Centennial, Colo., and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “It’s not that the sippy cup or juice by itself is causing cavities – it is the two together. Many children have near-constant access to their sippy cups. There’s almost never a time a child’s tooth isn’t bathed in sugar and that causes decay,” she says.
  • While certainly not something they’ll be able to do on their own for quite some time, it can’t hurt to introduce flossing early on, by the time a child is 5. “Hopefully it’s something they see you do,” says Dr. Cynthia Sherwood, a dentist in private practice in Independence, Kan., who serves as a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry.

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