You may be struggling with how to teach your toddler to brush their teeth. As a parent, you have to pick your battles with your child, even when it comes to hygiene.
If your kid hates having their hair brushed, you can negotiate a shorter cut that requires less maintenance.
If they want to keep wearing their favourite pair of pants long after both knees are ripped, you can chalk it up to their unique style and let it go.
One thing you can’t compromise on? Brushing teeth.
And not just because clean, healthy teeth might help you avoid expensive orthodontic care when your kids are older (although that, too!), but also because good oral hygiene is essential to overall health.
Some experts even think the bacteria that occurs with gum disease may move into the bloodstream, potentially hurting heart health.
Between the ages of three and six, kids can take over this task with adult assistance and, by age eight, they should be brushing their teeth all on their own.
If your child still fights you when it’s time to brush their teeth or refuses to claim any responsibility for this hygiene habit, it’s time to help them get their mouth into a sparkling, smiling shape.
It is recommended that everybody brush their teeth twice a day – in the morning and before going to bed at night.
It’s good for children to start having their teeth brushed early to see tooth brushing as part of their daily routine. Children will need help and encouragement to develop this new skill.
When to Begin Brushing Your Child’s Teeth
Start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as the first tooth comes through, usually at around six months of age.
Clean your baby’s teeth with a soft wet cloth or a small soft toothbrush with water.
Clean all surfaces of the teeth and gums twice a day: in the morning and before bed at night.
Baby teeth help children to eat and speak and guide the permanent adult teeth into position, so it is essential to take care of them right from the start.
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Choosing the Right Brush and Toothpaste for Your Child
Choose a toothbrush that is designed for children. It should have a small head and soft bristles.
When choosing the right toothpaste, remember:
- for children, 0–18 months of age – use only water, no toothpaste
- from 18 months until the child turns six years old – use a small pea-sized amount of low fluoride children’s toothpaste (check on the pack)
- From six years of age – use a pea-sized amount of standard fluoride toothpaste.
- For children who do not have access to fluoridated water or who have a greater risk of tooth decay for other reasons, guidelines about toothpaste use may vary. Ask your dentist or another oral health professional for more information.
Young Children Need Help Brushing Their Teeth
Tips to help clean your child’s teeth include:
- Sit your child on your lap, facing away from you.
- Cup their chin with one hand, with their head resting against your body.
- Brush teeth and along the gum line. Brush gently in small circles. Clean every tooth thoroughly and brush the inside, outside and chewing surfaces of teeth.
- After brushing, please encourage your child to spit out toothpaste, not swallow it or rinse with water. This leaves a small amount of toothpaste in the mouth to keep protecting teeth.
Spitting out can be difficult for small children. You will need to encourage and show them how to do it.
Teaching Your Child to Brush Their Teeth
Encourage children to take part in this routine as they get older. Help them develop the skill by letting them go first before you follow up to ensure all surfaces have been cleaned.
At around the age of eight, children have developed the fine motor skills needed for tooth brushing. However, supervision is often required past this age until you are sure they can do it well by themselves.
So at this point, you may be ready to pass the toothbrush and give your child the responsibility of scrubbing his teeth.
But even if you’re ready to cede control of your toddler’s toothbrushing ritual morning and evening, your little one may not be so eager to go it alone. If he resists the change of guard, try these tricks to encourage your tot to brush his teeth:
Let Your Toddler Pick the Supplies
Take your tot to the store and let him choose his toothbrush and toothpaste with fluoride.
A colourful character on the brush’s handle may not inspire you, but it might make all the difference in coaxing a toddler to brush his teeth. Let him pick the toothpaste, too, so that he’s sure to like the flavour.
Just be sure to monitor his schmear: The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends using a rice-sized toothpaste for kids under three and a pea-sized amount for kids 3 to 6 to reduce the risk of fluorosis (white lines caused by too much fluoride).
Lower Your Expectations
Your child probably won’t be cleaning the gum lines or reaching into tiny crevices just yet.
Don’t sweat it. These early lessons are as much about instilling the habit as they are about technique. The more practice he gets, the faster he’ll improve.
If you’re worried that your toddler’s teeth aren’t getting cleaned adequately while he’s learning to take the reins, let him do the morning brushing session while you handle the evening one.
That way, he’ll get practice brushing on his own in the a.m., but he’ll also get a reminder of your technique in the p.m.
Nighttime is also a good opportunity for you to get him used to floss once a day before brushing (unlike brushing, flossing is something you’ll want to do for him at this point).
Brush Along With Him
Join your toddler while he brushes his teeth: Having a little camaraderie might encourage him to take a little longer for a more thorough cleaning. Try stepping it up a notch by setting up a competition (Who can brush every tooth?).
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Take a Spin
Consider giving your child a battery-powered spin toothbrush. The novelty might coerce teeth brushing.
Plus, some toothbrushes play a song until it’s time to stop or signal that two minutes are up by making a noise, encouraging your child to practice patience and get the job done right.
Find an Ally
Talk to Them
How many times have you told your child to brush their teeth only to be answered with a whine or complaint?
Brushing your teeth seems like a total waste of time to most kids; it’s boring, their teeth don’t look dirty, and who cares what happens to baby teeth, anyway?!
Well, your kid should care. Baby teeth are important! They hold space for the adult teeth that will come in later; losing baby teeth too early to tooth decay can cause overcrowding and other problems.
But your kid doesn’t know any of that, so you should talk to them about the importance of brushing their teeth twice a day.
Teaching your kids about good oral hygiene—and putting them in charge of it—often works better than the authoritarian “Because I said so!” approach.
Here are some essential talking points and strategies you can use whenever you get pushback from your child about taking care of their teeth.
- Brush your teeth alongside your child in the morning and the evening. Little kids like to copy adult behaviours.
- Cater to their preferences. If your child only wants bubble gum-flavoured toothpaste, don’t insist on mint. If they’re going to try an electric toothbrush (oh, the novelty!), that’s fine. Whatever gets them brushing.
- Do a cavity science experiment. Many kids learn best when they have a visual example, so it may help to show your child what happens to their teeth when they eat and then when they don’t brush.
- Offer lots of choices. Instead of mandating when exactly your child needs to brush their teeth, ask if they want to touch them before or after they get dressed in the morning. This makes them feel in control without letting them off the hook.
- Play pretend. Little kids will love brushing the teeth of their favourite dolls and stuffed animals, so give them a dollar store toothbrush and let them role-play dentists. See if they can explain to their toys why brushing is so essential; teaching often reinforces learning.
Please remind your child that we wash our hands several times a day to get rid of germs so we don’t get sick, and when we brush our teeth, we’re doing the same thing.
Take turns. Allow your child to brush their teeth first, and then tell them it’s your turn. Kids under six don’t have the motor skills to brush effectively, so they need an adult to brush for them.
But giving them the chance to do it first helps them learn and practice.
If your child still isn’t on board, it’s time to enlist some help. Grab some picture books (this one and this one are great!), turn on the “Daniel Visits the Dentist” episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, crank the volume on some old-school Raffi, or—when all else fails—bring your child to a family or pediatric dentist and let the professionals handle it. They’ve had a lot of practice!
Break the Task Down Into Steps
It might sound silly to you since you could probably brush your teeth in your sleep, but kids get overwhelmed quickly by multi-step tasks.
They have to take out their toothbrush and put toothpaste on it, and then they have to brush their teeth?! Cue meltdown.
Thankfully, this is a problem easily solved. Split all these small, simple tasks up for your child so that they can check them off one by one. For example:
- Take out your toothbrush and your toothpaste.
- Run the brush part of your toothbrush under cold water while you count to three.
- Turn off the water and put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your brush.
- Start a two-minute timer. You can buy a kid-friendly timer or even an app, like the Disney Magic Timer, designed to help kids brush their teeth if that motivates your child. But a primary hourglass timer, kitchen timer, or iPhone timer works just fine, too. Or try Chompers, a podcast for 3- to 7-year-olds to listen to while they brush (it offers two daily two-minute episodes).
- Brush your teeth until the two minutes is up, paying attention to all four parts of your mouth (and don’t forget your tongue!). Teach your child that their mouth can be divided into four parts—top left, top right, bottom left, and bottom right—before trusting them to brush independently. Lots of kids unintentionally focus on a tiny area, neglecting everything else.
- When the timer runs out, spit, rinse, and put your toothbrush away, so the head is upright in its holder or cup.
Some kids will memorise these steps with a bit of practice, but others will need a visual reminder.
That’s okay! Write or print out this list of instructions, or create an ordered set of pictures so they can follow along with the steps.
Laminate it and leave it in the bathroom so your child can refer to it as they learn to brush independently.
Foster an Independent Routine
Kids are often forgetful, but they’re also creatures of habit (just like grownups!). The easiest way to help your child make oral hygiene a part of their routine is to tie it to other activities they do every day without thinking: getting dressed or undressed, getting in or out of the tub or shower, before eating breakfast, or after having dessert.
You’ll have to do more prompting initially, and you may have to remind yourself to remind them.
After a few weeks, though, you can step back and see how well they remember on their own.
Once you feel your child has successfully taken on the responsibility by themselves, you still can’t go entirely hands-off.
You should plan to check in with your child regularly to ask them if they remember to brush twice a day and if they have noticed any changes to their teeth or gums, like pain or sensitivity.
Depending on the child, you may need to visually inspect their mouth to ensure they’re brushing thoroughly enough (or even check their breath to make sure it isn’t too stinky!).
Even if your child is keeping up their end of the brushing bargain, your child’s oral health is still your responsibility, for now, so you’ll have to continue making sure it’s being done correctly.
Tips for Brushing Children’s Teeth
Not all children will enjoy toothbrushing at first. Some tips to encourage toothbrushing are:
- Make it fun! Sing a song, make brushing noises, anything that will make the time enjoyable. Sometimes it just takes patience and persistence for young children to accept toothbrushing.
- Children like to copy others, so ask other family members to show children how they brush.
- Make sure that your child learns to brush every tooth. They should clean the front, back, and chewing surface of all teeth.
- Take at least two minutes to brush your child’s teeth. Playing a children’s toothbrushing video or app can help make this easier.
- Many dentist storybooks can be used to help teach young children about brushing teeth.
- Some children will do well using two toothbrushes. One for them to hold and use and one for you to brush correctly. Other children respond to ‘your turn, my turn, where the child touches first, then the parent brushes.
- If your child doesn’t like the taste of toothpaste, try brushing without toothpaste first. Then use a small amount of children’s low fluoride toothpaste to get them used to the flavour.
- If you are not having any success in the bathroom, try another location in the house.
- For older children, try using a reward system. For example, mark the number of times their teeth are cleaned twice a day on a calendar and offer a reward when they reach a goal.
- A children’s electric toothbrush is a good alternative for children aged older than three years and can make brushing easier.
- If using an electric toothbrush, read the instructions for your brush. Place a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on the brush head and guide the meeting to your child’s teeth first, then switch it on. Move the head slowly from the tooth, including brushing where the gum and tooth meet. Do not press too hard or scrub them; let the brush do the work. Be sure to brush the inside, outside and chewing surfaces of all their teeth, top and bottom.
Dental Checks for Children
Children should have an oral health check by the time they turn two. This may be done by a dentist, other dental professional or health professionals, such as a maternal and child health nurse or doctor.
Older children should continue to have check-ups with a dentist or other oral health professional. Ask them how often your child needs to have a dental check-up.
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