Question:

How do you handle difficulties in getting a toddler to brush her teeth?

Answer:

I asked several women in the church and the following is a composite of their responses. Most small children go through a stage where they don't want to brush their teeth. Most of the time is just another form of testing the limits (see the next chapter). To make brushing more appealing to a small child, take them to the store and allow them to pick out a special toothbrush just for them. Some children really like electric brushes. Let them also pick out their own children's toothpaste. This turns the table on them from something they are being forced to do to something they choose to do. Since children of this age often want to imitate adults, brush your teeth along with them. Use stickers on a wall chart to reward getting their teeth brushed. On the imitation point, find a children's book about brushing teeth to add to the ones you read to them.

One mother told me, "I remember playing like I was looking for dinosaurs or whatever in their mouths when my kids were really small. You know, 'open wide, I think I see something...' They really got into that."

Another mother replied, "Oh, yes -- we did something like that, too. Only we looked for animals escaped from the zoo, complete with sound effects. I would tell them to open wide. 'I thought I saw a monkey I needed to brush out!' And then make all sorts of monkey noises until I'd brushed it out. Another thing we did is practice opera singing. When I wanted them to open their mouths wide, I'd tell them to open up and sing with me, and then I did the scales with 'Ahhh-ahh-ahh-ahhh-ahhh-ahhh.' When I wanted to brush the fronts of their teeth, they held their teeth together, smiled real big, and we sang the scales using 'eeee.'"

Sometimes when there is strong resistance, breaking the cycle helps. Get other bedtime rituals done and then come back to brushing their teeth. Often insisting will break the barrier. "You won't be doing anything else until your teeth are brushed." However, be prepared for a long siege at first and make sure there are no toys in the bathroom. For really tough situations, have Dad be in charge. Often times a child is less inclined to fight Dad than Mom. By the way, you can brush at least the outer surfaces of the teeth even when a child refuses to open his mouth. Some brushing is better than nothing at all and the child cannot claim he "won."

Another mother, who is a dental hygienist, had this suggestion. "We suggest in our dental office that the toddler stands on a stool and you stand behind them. Have them tilt their heads back against your chest/stomach. That way you can see better. Brush the teeth in little circles hitting the gums also. This will keep the gums healthier. Make sure you have the right size brush, not too big to easily fit on the side of their molars and they should be able to open their mouths easily while brushing the sides of their teeth. Using disclosing solution so after they brush, helps you and the child to see places they have missed so they can go back and clean those areas. Kids generally do not have the dexterity to do a really good job until after the age of 7. I know that sounds old to be helping them, but it pays off in the end."

Be aware that specials needs children, such as those with Down Syndrome or autism, are sometimes extra sensitive to sensory perceptions. Using a cotton or sponge swab may be a way to start getting them used to the feel of having their teeth cleaned. Also, avoid using strong tasting toothpaste.

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