Brushing Your Toddler’s Teeth

Taking care of kids’ teeth at an age in which they are learning to assert their independence can be a tricky prospect.  Toddlers can have nuclear-level meltdowns over something we see as simple and inconsequential.  Let’s be real! They can be a bit dramatic! (At age three, my son tried to stage a sit-in in the grocery aisle screaming “I WANT HUMMUS!” while he writhed on the floor as though he was being doused with acid.) Tooth brushing and flossing can be a challenging new sensation for their mouths, which makes this unfamiliar activity a prime target for their emotions to get the better of them. But since toddlers are VERY prone to cavities, it is an especially important habit to enforce.  It sounds like a daunting prospect–I KNOW!  And there will be good days and bad days.  But roll with it! If you recognize and reinforce dental hygiene as an important part of your child’s health, your kids will learn to love having a clean mouth and a shiny, healthy smile!

Here are some helpful dental tips for young children:

  • Start young.  Brush their gums before they even have teeth! This will get them more familiar with the sensation of tooth brushing and will lower the amount of bacteria in their mouths when those pearly whites emerge. Get them to a dentist by age one or within 6 months of the first tooth poking through.
  • Toddlers usually want to brush their teeth on their own.  However, until they have the manual dexterity to tie their own shoes, they can’t be expected to effectively remove microorganisms off of their teeth. Take turns instead.  Say, “I’m going to brush for five seconds. Then it’s your turn!  1…2…3…4…5… Now you try!” Continue to repeat until all the surfaces of the teeth are clean.
  • If your child is not cooperating, they need to know that this is important enough that you are willing to brush their teeth–even under nuclear meltdown conditions.  When they are throwing tantrums, it is called aversive behavior and in toddler language it means, “If I throw a fit of epic proportions, will you stop doing that thing that I don’t like?” If the answer is “Yes. I will stop,” you have just reinforced that behavior. The consequences of not participating in good oral hygiene in young kids is often dire. So if the answer is, “I know you don’t like how this feels, but we need to do it anyway,” they will learn to tolerate and even like the process if you remain persistent. You would never skip a stinky diaper change if they were protesting; Tooth brushing is equally as important!
  • Utilize their amazing imaginations to your advantage.  Tell them all about the yucky sugar bugs stuck to their teeth. Say things like, “Oh my goodness! There is a big, stinky orange sugar bug stuck right under your tongue! I need to go get him before he makes a house in your tooth! *whisper* Don’t move. I’m going to sneak up on him and get him out of there. Stay really still. It will take me three seconds.  1…2…3.”
  • Use routines to implement regular brushing and flossing (…and YES. I said flossing. Any teeth that are touching need to be flossed. Pro tip: Use flossers!) If your child is particularly sensitive to oral care and they know storytime happens right after they brush and floss, any protests are very short-lived as they anticipate something fun and enjoyable. 
  • When your kids are preschool-aged, show them in the mirror where to aim the bristles of the tooth brush.  One of the dirtiest places in the mouth is at the gumline. Most of the bacteria accumulates at the junction between the gums and the teeth.  It is common for children to develop gum infections and cavities in this location, but this is the spot where the toothbrush bristles tickle the most and where kids have a difficult time enduring the sensation.  Help them visualize the sugar bugs trying to hide in that spot. Say, “Ewwww! Look at that yucky sugar bug! He’s trying to climb onto your gums! Let’s get him!”  If their gums are bleeding when you do this, it’s a good indication that the bacteria has already created a mild infection called gingivitis.  It will resolve within a couple of days of better brushing in those areas. If your child sees the bleeding, remind them that it’s because those sugar bugs were making a big mess in there.  Just bear in mind that, while doing this activity in the mirror is a great teaching tool, it does make it impossible to get into some of the hardest to reach places.  For those spots, and to really get into the areas where gingivitis is already present, it is better to “play dentist” and have your child lay face up with their head in your lap while you do the brushing. 
  • A soft bristled toothbrush with a small head is ideal for removing the bacteria in young mouths. For stimulation of the gums and to alleviate teething pain, a silicone bristled brush is fine in infants and will withstand chewing forces better than a regular toothbrush (but doesn’t remove the plaque along the gumline as effectively.) Replace toothbrushes at least every three months or after a child is sick. If the bristles have begun to splay out, however, you may need to do so sooner–especially when a child is teething and chewing on the bristles frequently.