What is it about getting kids to brush their teeth that is the perfect setup for a power struggle? In our house at least, the, ahem, toothiest tantrums happen just before bedtime as I wrestle the end of a hot pink (with glitter!) toothbrush into the screaming mouth of my strong-willed 2-year-old. Maybe instead it’s your hygiene-averse middle-schooler or broody teen shutting the bathroom door in your face at the mere mention of brushing. As well-meaning parents (who also happen to be the people paying the dental bills), there’s added pressure to keep our kids’ oral health on track, and it seems no matter what their age, the more we force the issue, the harder they resist.
But when it comes to choosing your battles, this isn’t one to concede — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that tooth decay “is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood in the United States,” affecting 45.8 percent of children ages 2–19. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting website, the decay of the primary (baby) teeth is a strong indicator for cavities in adult teeth, which of course can have a harmful effect on overall health later in life.
So, how can we keep the peace and help our kids establish healthy oral hygiene habits?
“Children get their adult teeth quite young, starting at the age of 6, and these are the teeth that are meant to stay with them forever,” says Tina Fariba, DDS, a pediatric dentist at First Impressions Dental in San Diego. When it comes to establishing good oral hygiene, Fariba says that, first and foremost, “The importance of cultivating positive oral hygiene habits is shaped by parents and the environment they create for their children. These are the habits that will stick with them until they are an adult.”
According to Fariba, if parents model good oral hygiene from the very beginning, enforce it, and build a positive relationship with a family dentist, they set their kids up for long-term success. But, like me, you might have missed the boat on the early establishment of a “dental home” and failed to create an environment conducive to developing these important skills … or maybe your child just responds better when routines are made fun! It’s never too late to start modeling good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing together as a family and by scheduling regular checkups to familiarize your kids with a dentist who can be an additional source of encouragement. And if you still find yourself in dental duels, employing some of these motivational strategies to make oral health more fun should help:
A little positive reinforcement goes a long way! Keeping track of daily brushing and flossing habits creates accountability and gives kids a way to see their progress. For toddlers and younger children, a stamp or sticker might be reward enough, but you can always sweeten the deal with an incentive. There are analog and digital options for every age group, both of which can take the burden of reminders (nagging) off you. Your littles will love the printables from Sesame Street, or try an app such as Habitz or Bear in Mind. Dental care journal stickers (Etsy.com has a treasure trove of adorable options) would have been oh-so-appealing to my tween self, who was never without a notebook in hand, but of course an app like Done or HabitShare (which can be utilized along with siblings and other family members) might be more your teen’s speed.
All about the brush
Who doesn’t want a super-cool toothbrush? Take your kiddo to the toothbrush aisle and let them choose their own, or surprise them with one of these very awesome options: The Brushies finger-puppet toothbrush and matching book sets will capture the attention of babies and set a positive tone for brushing. Toddlers and kids go crazy for light-up shoes, and Crayola’s timer light toothbrush has the same mesmerizing effect. There’s also a wide variety of electric toothbrushes for toddlers and kids available, such as the Jack n’ Jill Buzzy Brush musical toothbrush or Lanbeibei’s U-shaped smart brush. And when it comes to teens, you can never go wrong with technology. Try a subscription for a trendy colored Quip electric brush or the Oral-B Genius Pro 8000, which connects to Bluetooth.
A gentle reminder
Perhaps your kids (who are at least 6 and old enough to brush without supervision) respond better to subtleties, in which case, a wall decal (search on Wayfair.com or Etsy.com) could be the perfect way to drop the hint. Merely keeping their toothbrush and toothpaste visible, rather than tucked in a cabinet, also serves as a consistent reminder. You can’t go wrong displaying them in a fun holder — Urban Outfitters stocks a number of cute options, such as a glow-in-the-dark Smiski holder.
Make a game of it
One dad I know swears by a game he invented, “Character Dentist.” Kids choose a character (vampire dentist, cowboy dentist, etc.) and dad acts accordingly while helping them brush their teeth, inviting laughter and easing the process for everyone involved. If you’re not that creative or your kids are old enough that they no longer find you funny, apps such as Colgate Magik, Brushing Hero and Disney Magic Timer all gamify teeth-brushing, offering an augmented-reality, video-game-like setting suitable for kids ages 4–12. Habitica is a productivity app that makes a game of goal-setting — perfect for older kids and teens who need some serious motivation.
The magic of music
Transition songs work wonders for easing kids from one activity to the next without feeling forced. When it comes to brushing and flossing, music also helps pass the time and create a more relaxed atmosphere. For babies and toddlers, a simple ditty like “Brushing, brushing, clean, top and bottom, in between” might suffice. If not, enlist help from YouTube! Raffi’s “Brush Your Teeth,” Super Simple Songs or “This Is the Way We Brush Our Teeth” are all fun and easy to learn. Or, take a hint from everyone’s favorite cat, Daniel Tiger. The Brush DJ app is great for older kids and teens who have their own music preferences; it plays a two-minute song right from their cloud or playlist and has a reminder feature to boot!
Books for babies
It sounds basic, but for babies, one of the best ways to introduce good oral health habits is through reading. There are volumes of books about brushing out there — but in this case, the simpler the better. Rhyming and repetition come to your aid in these tried-and-true favorites: “Brush, Brush, Brush,” “Tooth,” and “Pony Brushes His Teeth.”
Editor's note: This article was first published in 2019 and has been updated for 2021.