You Can Lead a Child to a Sink . . .

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pouting toddler who refuses to brush his teeth

But You Can’t Make Him Brush His Teeth!

We’ll you could, technically, but you wouldn’t want to.

Broccoli, bath time, and tooth brushing are some guaranteed ways to get into a power struggle with a toddler (or a strong-willed Labrador). Obviously I can make my Labrador Retriever, Axel, brush his teeth. That’s because he’s physically unable to do it without me.

dr. drews brushing his dog's teeth

Not so with a toddler!

Sure, they’re physically able to hold a toothbrush, they just often don’t want to do what you want them to. And let’s face it, one of the primary developmental tasks for young children is to try to gain control over their bodies; whether it’s what they put into it, onto it, or expel from it.

Most adults don’t enjoy going to the dentist, so it’s no surprise that kids find it scary and/or uncomfortable having someone shove a blunt, bristly, pokey object in their mouths and move it around. Pretty ironic really, considering they spend much of babyhood putting the remote control, stuffed toys, sand, and anything else approximating a choking hazard, in there. The reality is, pretty much all anxiety or phobia (whether it’s about getting on a plane or sitting in my chair), comes down to control.

3 Key Concepts

In an effort to help struggling parents win the sink battles, here are three concepts to keep in mind when it comes to helping your child get excited about tooth brushing time. Obviously, different children respond differently to things, so what worked for your niece might not work for your firstborn. Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error until you find something that works.

1. Monkey See, Monkey Do

mother and child brushing teeth

Modelling a behavior is generally one of the fastest ways to get a small person to do something – think of how quickly they repeat certain four letter words because they heard daddy say it. So letting them watch you brush your teeth at home is a fantastic start to promoting good oral hygiene. Try shopping for matching toothbrushes, or let them have some control by picking out their own themed one. Same with the toothpaste, although I advise hiding the tube because the temptation to squeeze the whole thing into the sink when you’re not looking is sometimes too much to resist.

Have your child stand in front of the mirror with you and encourage them to create lots of frothy bubbles. One of the best ways to do this is by telling them to use circular brush strokes like a choo-choo train’s wheels. Not only is it more fun, using big circles is more effective at removing plaque than the standard ‘back and forth’ strokes.

This will also help them practice the motor skills required, as very young children do not yet have the manual dexterity necessary to do a thorough job when brushing their own teeth. Songs are a great way to distract, as well as to create a ‘time frame’ longer than 10 seconds. Need songs? There are a ton of them right online. Try this print-out or the Brush DJ app, or play Raffi’s Brush Your Teeth video.

Finish sink time by using the old ‘distract and offer control’ maneuver, taking turns to brush each other’s teeth, which can also help reverse the power dynamic. If your child fights using toothpaste at first, just focus on the brushing and introduce it again later. It’s more about the action than the suds.

To further the modelling agenda, we encourage our parent patients to actually bring their toddlers in with them when they come to their hygiene appointments. Bringing them with you can really help facilitate the process of getting them acclimated to regular dental cleanings and check ups and the visit can also help you explain why it’s so important for them to brush their teeth. Just be sure to check with your hygienist before you show up with a toddler in tow. Even if they’re a family-friendly office, they’ll appreciate the heads-up and be better prepared to help you create the best possible experience for your little one.

2. Provide The “Why?”

Plaque Discloser

Anyone with a toddler can tell you all about a toddler’s favorite question, “Why?” An “endless why” conversation with a toddler can, theoretically, go on forever which is probably why it often leads to the parent’s favorite answer, “Because.”

Children go through this stage as their little minds are working to absorb a vast amount of knowledge about the world around them. While the inquisitive nature is a good sign, it can often be quite tiresome. Cognitively, younger children are just not always going to understand “why” they need to brush their teeth, no matter how many reasons we give them. So break it down into things they can grasp with stories and songs about ‘sugar bugs’ making holes in their teeth. Brushing your teeth rids your mouth of any sugar bugs. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of sugar bugs!

Chasing or brushing something “away” is a concept they get and it can be a fun game. Many children respond well to scrubbing away ‘sugar bugs,’ or washing away their ‘stinky dragon’s breath!’ This is a great opportunity to explore your acting abilities by becoming overly dramatic when they breathe on you. You can even try using the bright pink disclosing tablets (you remember those from your own childhood, don’t you) which provide a very concrete indication of where they need to ‘scrub away’ the bugs to make them disappear. We always have a fresh supply of those here at our office to help teach kids about brushing effectively.

3. Spit and Polish

toddler bath time

Play ‘tooth brushing’ throughout the day using stuffed animals and dolls. Try finding fun coloring pages or educational games like the ones here or the really cut free sparkling tooth printables here.

Sometimes waiting until after a bath to start talking about tooth brushing skills can mean dealing with a tired, cranky, and therefore less co-operative child. So start during bath time. It’s a great place to practice gargling, rinsing, and spitting; no matter how old or young, there is nothing more satisfying than shooting a stream of water from your mouth. Obviously the more ‘fun’ you can make things, the more co-operation you will get in return. Practicing spitting can also be a great way to stop the tendency of some who suck toothpaste off their brushes.

You Just Never Know What You’re Going To Get

We strive to make all dental appointments comfortable for our patients, especially when it’s a very first appointment ever. I had one little girl come into my office for her first hygiene appointment, and by the end of her visit she was telling her mother that she wanted to have her birthday party here. She is something of an exception! How do you get a child like this? It is probably a combination of her parents at home, watching her big sisters come in for their appointments, and partly just her personality.

As they get older, egg timers work as a great visual prompt to let your child know ‘how much longer’ and when it’s time to stop. You can also buy electric toothbrushes that will play music for the duration of brush time. In fact, sonic care even came out with an electric toothbrush complete with an app for that:

The objective is to start developing a ritual around brushing and the goal is to make this habit a part of their daily routine now, and throughout their lives. Hopefully you’ve found a helpful idea or two from our key concepts for toddler tooth brushing battles.

Of course, none of these suggestions apply when it comes to brushing my dog’s teeth, so if anyone has a suggestion on how to teach Axel that a toothbrush is not actually a chew toy, I am all ears!!

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