Helping Young Children Develop Healthy Tooth Brushing Habits

Recently we talked about how to deal with stubborn stains on your child’s teeth. This week, let’s zero in on another stubbornness many parents know all too well: reluctant brushers. I’ll share some tips on best practices for engaging toddlers and young school-age children in healthy tooth brushing habits to help turn your reluctant little brusher into an enthusiastic one!

You may be asking yourself, Why is it so important for young kids to brush, anyway? Amy Freeman, writing for Colgate, gives a great overview of the importance: “Having a child who won’t brush his baby teeth might not seem like a cause for concern; he will lose them soon anyway. But tooth decay is one of the most common chronic conditions in kids, affecting about 20 percent of those between the ages of five and 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And not brushing now can cause your child discomfort… well into the eruption of their adult teeth. It also sets up a pattern of not brushing in the future, which can lead to health issues in other parts of the body.” So, let’s discuss how to turn things around in your household and set your child up for tooth brushing success.

Before jumping into some Dos, let’s start with a list of Definite Don’ts.

Definite Don’ts

  • Definitely don’t hold your child down to brush his teeth. Young children experience the sensations of their body very strongly, and tooth brushing requires them to tolerate quite a bit of sensory input. It’s understandably already uncomfortable for young children to have their teeth brushed, so holding your child down will only add insult to injury, and may elicit a fear response which will make it more likely that your child will resist this normal, everyday routine even more strongly and develop dental phobias in the future.
  • Definitely don’t trick your child into brushing her teeth when she’s not paying attention. This sneak-attack approach will undermine your relationship with your child, and make it much less likely that you’ll get the long-term buy-in that you need to help your child develop a regular healthy habit.
  • Definitely don’t allow your child to drink milk or eat right before bedtime, after brushing teeth. This habit can creep in easily because it’s a time-honored stalling technique children employ, but it negates all of the hard work you’ll have put into establishing a healthy tooth brushing routine. Offer water, instead!

Dos

  • Our first Do is fundamental to the process of developing healthy toothbrushing habits (and it applies to many other healthy routines, too!). It comes from parenting expert, Janet Lansbury, who urges parents to “Make the activity a familiar routine and/or give advance notice [and] offer autonomy.”
    • To establish a routine, decide on two times of day, and be doggedly consistent. Consider what predictable event could come after toothbrushing, and remind your child (“After we brush your teeth, we’ll read a story.” “After you brush your teeth, you can pick out your PJs.”) But don’t stop there. Consider how you can involve your child in the routine so that they know exactly what to expect. With toddlers, this can be as simple as asking them to hold their toothbrush while you turn the faucet on to wet it and put a dot of training toothpaste on. For older children, this can mean grabbing a stool so they can watch themselves in the mirror, putting the toothpaste on the brush (with supervision), and picking out new toothbrushes at regular intervals when grocery shopping. No matter your child’s age, communicate with them clearly during daily activities so that they know toothbrushing time is coming up.
    • Let your child have some control over brushing. As Lansbury explains, “Let your child… at least try. What’s there to lose? …Children toddler age and older feel more autonomous when we offer them choices.” This doesn’t mean that you won’t need to help your child, or that your child has ac choice about whether to brush. But it does give them the chance to do some brushing on their own first, before you help, and gain that feeling of independence. One specific way to encourage this in young brushers is to suggest that they “smile” and brush their very front teeth by themselves, and then provide help with brushing back teeth. You can add in the element of choice by saying things like, “It’s time to brush your teeth. Would you like to go first, and have me help you at the end? Or do you want me to start today?”
  • Do experiment with different toothpastes.
    • Every child is unique in a million ways, and their flavor preferences are no different. What may seem like a reluctance to brush may actually be an aversion to the taste of the toothpaste you’re using. Bring your child along to the grocery store and pick out a couple of kids’ toothpastes to “test” together. Bonus: this adds some fun to the process, as many brands feature characters and there are several different flavors to try! (For children under three, opt for training toothpaste, which is fluoride-free, or follow your child’s pediatrician guidelines).
  • Do brush your teeth with your child… or let your child brush your teeth!
    • Modeling is one of the most effective ways to help little people find their way in the world, and it’s no different with tooth brushing. Brush your own teeth while your child gets to work on his to show him that it’s important to your health, too, and consider letting your child “help” you, just like you help them.
  • Do think out of the box when it comes to where your child brushes her teeth, says Dr. Mark Burhenne at AsktheDentist.com.
    • Here’s what Burhenne suggests: “Expand the arena. Do not limit brushing to the bathroom! Brush on the beach after a family picnic. Brush in the car after snacks. They will learn by your example – they will follow your lead. Don’t limit their experiences of brushing at an early age.” This idea applies to twice-daily brushing, too. Maybe your child would prefer to brush her teeth in her room, or on Mommy’s bed, or in front of the closet mirror. As long as it’s happening, it doesn’t really matter where!
  • Our last Do comes from Dr. Laura at Aha! Parenting: Sing!
    • Singing during toothbrushing does more than just help your child to get through an uncomfortable task with some levity, though this alone is a great goal. You can choose a song you and your child both love, or you can make up your own silly song together. Dr. Laura explains that, beyond the fun factor, “most important, [singing] assures the child that the brushing is time limited, because they can count on it ending when the song ends.”

What are your tried-and-true methods for helping your child develop a healthy tooth brushing habit? I’d love to hear what works for you.