Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aha! Parenting and is reprinted here with permission.
Toddlers don’t really understand why they need to brush their teeth, no matter what stories we tell them about cavities. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on brushing your toddler’s teeth. 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 children brushing by themselves sooner.
1. Play “copycat.” Since most kids at this age enjoy learning by copying us but want to “do it themselves,” brush together while looking into the mirror. Let your child “brush” their own teeth while you brush yours, copying you in the mirror. They won’t do a thorough job, but it’s a good start and teaches them that they brush. That way, they don’t have to rebel totally against brushing teeth even if they go through periods when they won’t let you brush their teeth. The bottom line: Make it a fun game.
2. Your job is to “check” that no food is hiding. In the beginning, your child will just chew on the toothbrush most of the time, but they will get comfortable with the toothbrush being in their mouth. Then, you can help them 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 your child what a great job they 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 a sense of mastery, so let them feel good about their brushing achievement even though at the moment you’re really the one doing it. Over time, they will get better and better.
3. Keep it short! Having someone poke around in your mouth can seem interminable, even to an adult. The idea now is to get your child used to the idea of brushing. Remember, your job is just to “check,” which means a quick swipe over all of the child’s teeth. You can lengthen the amount of brushing time by using songs and timers as your child gets used to it and becomes more cooperative.
4. When you are “checking” (which is really brushing their 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 their teeth.
5. Sing while you are “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 and reinforces the routine. Maybe most important, it assures the child that the brushing time is limited, because they can count on it ending when the song ends.
6. Use sound to encourage good habits. Prompt your child to say “Teeee” (for the front teeth) and “Ahhhh” (for the back teeth), and to roar like an animal so that their mouth is open wide while brushing. This also makes the whole process more of an exciting game.
7. If your child resists, take turns. Toddlers are beginning to understand “My turn!” so you can say, “Baby’s turn to brush Mommy’s teeth!” and then “Now it’s dolly’s turn!” and “Now it’s Mommy’s turn to brush Baby’s teeth!”
8. For kids who resist, start the brushing task with something fun. Anything that gets your child giggling will make them more amenable to cooperating. For instance:
- Let your child brush the “teeth” of their stuffed animal or doll.
- Brush all over the child’s body — their arm, their ear — and ask “Is this where I should brush?”
9. Offer choices to help your kiddos cooperate. To “finish up” brushing their teeth, does your child want their favorite stuffed animal, puppet or doll to help with the brushing as well? (Puppets make it easier for you to hold the toothbrush, but your child may prefer a stuffie or doll.) Hold the toy and let them “finish up” the brushing. Awkward, but it gets the job done.
10. Be sure to read books with your child about toddlers brushing their teeth. When kids read about brushing teeth, the whole process is normalized rather than feeling like a hardship they have to endure.
Three books about brushing your teeth to read with your toddler:
- “Sugar Bugs” by Erica Weisz and Sam Weisz, DDS
- “Brush Your Teeth, Please: A Pop-up Book” by Jean Pidgeon
- “Brush, Brush, Brush!” by Alicia Padron
11. Watch YouTube videos with your child that show toddlers brushing their teeth. Many parents find this motivates kids even better than books, because most toddlers want to mimic other kids.
12. Make brushing teeth a reliable part of your family routine. Experiment until you find the right timing. For instance, try brushing before bath time, when your child is not as tired. Or even during the bath! It may be more awkward for you, but they will be in a more playful and relaxed mood.
13. If your child still resists, get them giggling about toothbrushing to help work out their feelings about it. Do this during the day, at a time when you aren’t actually brushing and your child feels more relaxed. For instance, make a game of letting them brush your teeth to reverse the power dynamic. This can get them giggling, which releases the same pent-up emotions as crying does.
14. Consider skipping the 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 receptive to brushing. The other option is to buy a bunch of kids’ toothpaste (Tom’s of Maine brand, for instance, prides itself on more natural ingredients), one after the other, trying them and giving your child choices. Maybe they will love one and that will give them added 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 their hands) while you brush their teeth. Let them be in charge of everything you can when it comes to brushing — the toothbrush they choose, the toothpaste (or not), the song, how many times you have to jump up and down before they are done, etc. Many parents say that simultaneously letting the little one brush their teeth while the parents brush them is the best distraction.
If your child resists, don’t get into a power struggle. Just “play” toothbrushing a little bit using the games above — for instance, brushing their elbow — so they understand it is still on the agenda. This practice will also give your child a chance to work out some of their resistance by giggling about your game. Then try again the following night.