How to get a Toddler to Brush Their Teeth – Tips and Techniques for Easier Teeth Cleaning

November 1st, 2011
toddler brushing teeth

Maya brushing her teeth... sort of...

Brushing toddler teeth is no easy task – Maya currently only has 4 teeth, but still cleaning them is a nightmare. If I come anywhere near her with a toothbrush, she clamps her mouth shut or sticks her tongue out so I can’t get to her teeth. I’m lucky if I manage to rub a bit of toothpaste on with my finger and pin her down long enough to run the brush over her teeth once before she screams the house down. I know it is important to clean toddler’s teeth at least twice a day and while I try to ensure Maya has a healthy diet, she probably gets more sugar than I would like due to the live-in grandparents not thinking twice about giving her a biscuit or bit of cake.

That being the case, I’ve recently been looking into strategies for toddler teeth cleaning and getting some ideas for brushing a toddler’s teeth without making it into a battle. We’re still working on making teeth brushing a fun activity for Maya but in the meantime, here’s a summary of the advice I’ve found:

When to Start Brushing Toddlers Teeth

In general, as soon as teeth appear in your baby’s mouth, you should clean them. It can even be beneficial to start before the first tooth has arrived as it gets the baby used to the sensation of teeth cleaning so they’re less likely to resist it later.

It’s not necessary to use a tooth brush at first and before the teeth have appeared – a quick wipe with a cloth or gauze-covered finger will suffice while your baby is still young. When those first teeth do make their appearance, start using a children’s toothpaste – just a tiny smear, so that they can benefit from the fluoride.

Getting your baby used to a toothbrush is also a good idea. Even if they still have a gummy smile, having a toothbrush to play with and chew on will mean they’re less likely to reject it when you start using it to clean their teeth in several months. Make sure your baby or young toddler can see you brushing your teeth as part of your daily routine and they’re likely to want to copy.

Once your toddler has a few teeth, it’s time to switch to a real toothbrush instead of a cloth or piece of gauze. It’s also recommended to start flossing your toddler’s teeth as soon as they have 2 teeth which are right next to each other but the idea of this is frankly laughable to me as I don’t know how I’m supposed to floss Maya’s teeth when I can barely get her to open her mouth. We’ll attempt flossing once we have the teeth brushing perfected.

What Kind of Toothbrush is Best for a Toddler

The best toddler toothbrush is a small headed brush with soft bristles. You can buy toothbrushes especially for toddlers and these are probably the best bet. The toothbrush we got for Maya has a wide round handle with a hole in it so she can easily hold it herself by putting her thumb through the hole. You can also buy finger-tip brushes for babies which fit over your finger. This can make brushing teeth that little bit easier if your toddler resists all attempts to put something in his mouth.

As your toddler grows older you can keep them interested by letting them choose their own toothbrush. A great way to get a toddler to brush his teeth is by buying a toothbrush that features their favorite cartoon character – there are toddler toothbrushes available for nearly every character.

A toddler electric toothbrush can also be a good gimmick to encourage your child to brush his teeth. Toddlers are often fascinated by the buzzing vibrating brush, especially if it features their favorite character. You may even find that your toddler can’t wait to use his electric toothbrush and wants to clean his teeth more often. Electric toothbrushes are also more effective at removing plaque than regular brushing. Battery powered toothbrushes are generally recommended for children aged 2 and up.

You should also make sure to use a special children’s toothpaste as the taste is more appealing to toddlers and they contain the right amount of fluoride. Very young toddlers can’t spit the toothpaste out so use only a very small amount and check with your dentist if your water supply has added fluoride.

Tips For Brushing Toddler Teeth

Make it Fun

If every teeth cleaning session is traumatic for your child, things are unlikely to improve. From the start, make sure your toddler sees you brushing your teeth and try to show them it is fun. You can try giving them a big smile with a mouth full of toothpaste and making a big deal out of spitting out the paste. Maya loves to ‘help’ me brush my teeth and I can usually persuade her to open her mouth after she’s had a go at brushing my teeth first.

You can also try making it into a game – count the teeth one by one and make sure they’re all getting special treatment. Start with a tickling game and then say you’re going to ‘tickle’ your toddler’s teeth. Use a special song that your child will learn to associate with having their teeth brushed and look forward to. Make silly sounds and silly faces when brushing teeth to make your toddler laugh

Use Distraction

We’ve had some success sitting Maya down in front of her favorite baby Einstein DVD while we quickly reach in to brush her teeth. If she’s somewhat occupied, she’s less likely to protest – the same tactic works for nappy changes. You could also try giving your toddler a special toy that is reserved only for tooth brushing time.

Use Rewards

You can also use a favorite video or toy but make sure your toddler knows that they won’t get it until their teeth are clean. You can also try giving them a ‘special’ sticker every morning as a reward for having extra clean teeth. Make this part of your every day routine so your child knows the ‘good part’ is coming as soon as they’ve brushed their teeth.

Let them take control

Do let your toddler hold the toothbrush and brush their own teeth, even if they’re not very good at it. I let Maya take turns so I’ll brush her teeth for a while and then give her the toothbrush so she can have a go herself (and brush my teeth too!). Remember that your toddler will not be skilled enough to brush his own teeth for quite some time so you should always supplement with your own brushing, no matter how independent they are.

Don’t Give In

It is vitally important to care for your toddler’s teeth, even though they will eventually be replaced by adult teeth. Decay in first teeth can cause adult teeth to be misaligned and in severe cases may even require surgery. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you don’t give your toddler sugary drinks or snacks that tooth cleaning isn’t as necessary – even healthy foods like milk and fruits can cause tooth decay.

Even if none of the fun tricks and games work, you need to clean your toddlers teeth twice a day so if they are resistant you may need to wrap them in a towel or get another adult to help hold their hands down so you can get to their mouth. Still use some of the suggestions above – sing a funny song which will also let your toddler know that when the song is over, the teeth brushing will be finished. And give some kind of reward afterwards and tell them how good they are for letting you brush their teeth – in time the process should become a little easier.

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