Dear Dr. Will,
Brushing my toddler’s teeth is a nightmare! Most nights, I have to pin him down just to get a toothbrush in his mouth. Even then, I only get his teeth half-brushed before I give up. There has to be a better way! Is there any advice you can give to make the process easier?
Thanks so much,
Your Fictitious Fan
Dear Fictitious Fan,
I feel your pain. Like every parent, I’ve had my fair share of tough teeth brushing nights. When my kids were little, they broke me with classic tactics like head turning, teeth clenching, body wiggling, and toothbrush biting. As they grew older, they threw in the occasional advanced counter measure – things like hiding the tooth paste, licking my fingers, and carrying out coordinated inter-sibling attacks (like the time Junior catapulted himself off the couch onto my back while I was desperately trying to brush Addy’s teeth as she flopped around uncontrollably on the floor).
Once my wife and I encountered these next generation threats, we knew we had to up our game. So, we experimented with dozens of different strategies and eventually honed in on a few that are particularly effective. While I won’t pretend that we’ve mastered the art of teeth brushing, these techniques have made things significantly easier.
Here they are:
1 – Get Personalized Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Take a special trip to Walmart or Target and let your kids pick out their own toothbrush and toothpaste. You may end up spending three or four dollars on a Ninja Turtle toothbrush (Junior’s weapon of choice), but it’ll be worth it because it will get your kid excited about their nightly brushing.
2 – Make Teeth Brushing Part of Your Routine
This is huge. By making it part of a routine, your kids will see it coming and they’ll have time to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves.
We’ve found it’s most effective to sandwich teeth brushing in between two activities the kids love. For example, we read books before teeth brushing to get them in a good mood. Then, to give them something to look forward to after teeth brushing, we read books again (yes, our kids love books).
3 – Let Your Kids Retrieve Their Tooth Brush and Tooth Paste
One of the keys to a painless tooth brushing session is making your kids feel like they’re involved in the process. One way you can do that is by having them pull out the floss, toothbrush, and toothpaste from the drawer themselves and bring it to you.
4 – Do a Toothbrush Song and Dance
Another key for success is making the experience as fun as possible. That’s why, in our family, we started doing a tooth brushing song and dance with Junior when he was little. Our song went like this:
“And we start on the top and we shake our hips!
Then we go to the back and we shake our hips!
Then the back on the bottom and we shake our hips!
And we shake our hips, and we shake our hips!
(Continue on until the whole mouth is brushed)”
Not exactly Grammy winning material, but Junior loved it and it made things go a little smoother.
5 – Use a Toothbrush Timer
Kids love watching a countdown. That’s why we downloaded the “Disney Magic Toothbrush Timer” app on our smart phones. The app was free (although we did have to buy a Disney brand toothpaste to activate it) and our kids love it.
Of course, you don’t have to use the same app we did. Any app that has a countdown the kids can follow (that is hands on a clock counting down or a picture being slowly revealed) will work. Not only will they love the countdown, but it will remind them that this unpleasant experience won’t last forever.
6 – Pretend You’re at the Dentist
Kids love role play. If you have a good dentist (like we do), then they’ll have a blast pretending that they’re at their semi-annual cleaning. Our kids giggle uncontrollably as I, pretending to be Dr. Harper, lay them down on the couch, prop their head up with a pillow, and say things like, “Thank you so much for coming to the dentist today” as I brush their teeth.
7 – Start on the Top
The top is always so much harder to brush than the bottom, especially the teeth in the back. You have to work at such a weird angle and our kids hate the way the toothbrush feels on the roof of their mouth. So, I start on the top to knock off the toughest part before they’ve already started losing their patience.
8 – Take Turns
After you finish the top, let your kid brush themselves for a few seconds before switching to the bottom. This will simultaneously give them a break and help them feel like they’re involved.
9 – Brush Stuff Other Than Teeth
As we near the end and our kids start getting antsy, I brush their nose, cheeks, forehead, belly, and ears. They think it’s hilarious (which improves their mood) and they start laughing (which gives me a nice, wide open mouth to finish the job).
10 – Let Them Brush Your Teeth Afterwards
Your kids will love this role reversal (especially if you lay down in the “dentist chair”) and it will give them something to look forward to when they finish up.
11 – Always Praise Them When They Do a Good Job
Kids eat up praise from their parents. When they do a good job, let them know you’re so proud of them. Over time, this consistent positive reinforcement will pay enormous dividends.
12 – Be Flexible With Your Strategy
While some of these techniques should be used every day (like making it a part of your routine and using positive reinforcement), your kids may get bored with others after a month or two (like the toothbrush timer). So, be flexible. Be willing to switch it up and try new things if your current approach isn’t working.
Hope these strategies help!