Let’s face it, getting our kids to brush their teeth can be a challenge.
But, we know it’s important to help support our child’s long-term health by establishing healthy oral hygiene habits early in their life.
Parents often reach out to us with questions like:
“Is it best to just pin the toddler down and brush their teeth?”
“What about just letting them do whatever job they do on their own?”
“What are some strategies that will support them long term toward developing healthy oral hygiene habits?”
Following recent articles on children’s oral health including, “4 steps to help your kids live a cavity free life” and “Are dental sealants safe for children“, in this article, let’s dive into how to help your children establish healthy brushing habits.
And it goes without saying that ‘in the mouth’ oral hygiene isn’t the only piece to the puzzle for optimal oral health for our kids. To truly support oral health, we need to also take ‘whole body’ action. For a holistic overview, check out our free video tutorial series, The 5 Steps to a Healthy Mouth. (We are honored that some homeschool families have shared with us that they have used our series to teach their kids!)
That said, oral hygiene does play a big role in oral health. Here are some helpful steps you can apply to set up a healthy mouth cleaning routine with your young kids.
Modeling healthy habits is the key…
Our kids are the most amazing sponges. They are hardwired to learn and imitate our habits (even the ones we would prefer they not copy!).
So, to help our young kids learn healthy oral hygiene habits, we have to model them. Modeling healthy oral hygiene habits requires that we care for our own oral health in front of our kids, rather than putting it off until they are in bed.
If we expect that we can ‘teach’ our children how to care for their teeth without them seeing that we do the same thing every day, we are picking a big fight with how children are hardwired to learn.
How to get permission to get inside your toddler’s mouth…
If we want to be able to help the child with brushing their teeth, again, we also have to model this.
Funny story for you… We both realized many years ago that we have consciously chosen to live a life on a different course than much of our modern culture. One (of the many ways) we have done this is to help one another view what’s going on in our mouths.
For example, if one of us has something going on that we want a closer eye on, we’ll ask the other to go outside with us into the bright sunlight with a mirror and have the other take a look around so we can be better informed on whatever we wanted to have a better look at ourselves.
So, given that we would look around each other’s mouths, our family was raised seeing that mom and dad do that, so it wasn’t a big leap for us to ask them to participate in the ‘family mouth exploration’ game.
Now, you don’t have to be as crazy as us and do it as a family affair. But having your toddler see you and another family member looking around one another’s mouths will be very helpful in convincing the toddler that it’s ok to let you look around their mouth.
Why it’s important to help them with their oral hygiene
The bottom line is that young children simply don’t have the manual dexterity to effectively clean their own teeth. Yes, they can learn how to take great care of their teeth and gums, but they need ‘back up’ from you in the beginning.
In fact, some dentist friends of ours have even explained to us that many adults don’t have the manual dexterity to effectively clean their own teeth, particularly when it comes to flossing well. We’ll dive into this subject in a different article and stay with helping our kids with brushing for now…
What about pinning them down to brush their teeth?
This is a very important question that deserves special attention. I’m actually inclined to write a whole separate article on this one aspect of children’s oral health.
We are firmly against this idea, and we pray that we can help you realize why pinning a child down to brush their teeth is such a terrible idea. More importantly, we’ll detail ideas to help you navigate to more peaceful, respectful alternatives for brushing a toddler’s teeth.
First, why would someone argue that using force to get toddlers to brush their teeth would be helpful?
Well, it’s based on believing that toddlers are just willful and resistant (ever heard someone mention ‘the terrible twos’?) and that oral hygiene is so important that it must be done regardless of whether or not you have compliance from the toddler.
We get it. Working with toddlers isn’t always easy. But we have to remember that this stage in their development is critical for them to realize their unique independence, that they are a separate being from their mother.
Unfortunately, applying the ‘might is right’ attitude when it comes to getting your toddler’s teeth clean risks substantial negative impact on that young child and your relationship with them.
Yes, of course the parent who believes in pinning down the child to brush would argue that they are doing it for the child’s own good, and that a toddler doesn’t know what’s best for them and is going to resist everything. “So, you just have to get it done.”
However, if we take this approach, we are at risk of causing all sorts of havoc in the child’s life.
1. We establish in the child’s consciousness a very negative association with oral hygiene.
2. We set the stage for other oral fixations later in the child’s life, like thumb sucking and smoking.
3. Perhaps most importantly, we model to the child that when you don’t get your way with someone, the path to success is to force them.
Bottom line, the emotional trauma for the family is not worth the one day’s brushing. And, anyone in their right mind (aka not stressed in the moment from arguing with their child) would realize that using this ‘might is right’ approach is only going to make tomorrow’s brushing even more difficult.
There has to be a better way.
Steps for creating a healthy brushing routine
In order to take the path less traveled for getting young kids to brush their teeth, you have to get your game plan in order.
Pre-planning: Planning your approach is critical for establishing a successful oral hygiene routine.
Tools needed: your toothbrush, your toddler’s brush, an inexpensive 2-minute sand ‘hourglass’ timer.
Determine the reward: What does the child really, really enjoy doing? Maybe your toddler really likes having a certain book read to them.
Time of day: Notice when you have more patience (not last thing at night) and when there is more harmony in the home. Once a day is really a fine place to start with a young one. As you are successful in establishing this ‘let’s work together’ oral hygiene routine with your toddler, the quality of cleaning you will get done will be much, much greater than a twice-a-day quick brushing with lots of tears.
Determine the sequence: Toddlers definitely grasp the ‘If/then’. For example, if you do this, then you’ll get this.
Stay on the ‘forward side of the energy circle’: The game is to stay on what we call the ‘forward side’ of the energy circle. When possible, use rewards over punishments. Consequences over rules. So, rather than, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll get punished’, we aspire to stick with, ‘Once you do this, then you get this (whatever they desire)’.
Make it routine: We’re all busy and have a hundred other things that we want to get done. But if we fight our child on this one, the energy we will lose will deflate even the best intentions to get something else done. We must make oral hygiene a positive routine.
Daily oral hygiene game plan example:
While not perfect or intended as ‘the right way’, this example may give you some ideas for where to take your family routine.
1. Do the sequence after breakfast, before favorite (fill in the activity blank) so parent is fresh and more patient and child is motivated and not tired.
2. Brush together with the child so they see how you brush your teeth. Don’t plan to ‘teach’ them with words, just be with them while brushing your teeth and encouraging them to brush theirs. Don’t worry if they aren’t really getting it at first. We all have to start somewhere.
3. After brushing, invite your child to carefully brush your teeth. Ask them to look for any food and ‘goobers’ that your brushing didn’t get out. Use the sand timer. Explain to them that you want them to brush your teeth first, then it will be your turn to brush their teeth. (And of course, use good judgment so they don’t accidentally hurt you.)
4. After their turn, it’s your turn to brush their teeth. Use the sand timer but don’t expect to get the whole 2 minutes in.
5. Model for them swishing with water after brushing to rinse away any plaque/food that was removed while brushing. Invite them to swish and spit too (since it’s water, it’s ok if they don’t get the spit thing yet, but most kids enjoy the opportunity to try spitting).
Now that we have all the parts thought out, we present it to the child.
Explain to the child the steps “We will be taking” everyday. Establish the routine. Even have it written out so you have your notes and the child can grasp that you are following a plan.
Make it ultra clear that once we finish this routine, we’re going to do (child’s favorite activity).
How much should you expect in the beginning?
Don’t expect your toddler to allow you to brush their teeth for 2 minutes at first. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If the child complies with the plan even a little, honor the reward.
The only time we want to withhold the reward is when the child is defiant and clearly chooses to break the sequence.
If, for example, the child brushes your teeth then doesn’t allow you to brush theirs, explain to the child that they got to brush your teeth and it’s your turn to brush theirs now. If they still resist, calmly state to them that if we don’t get all the steps done, we won’t get to (favorite activity reward).
Resist the temptation to shift into ‘might is right’ and day by day, they will become more used to the routine and allow you to brush for longer periods of time.
After all, it’s a very intimate time where you are cleaning one another. Treat it like the precious time with your child that it is and your child will learn that oral hygiene time is an opportunity that they have to get your individualized attention with them.
If the defiance happens more than once in a long while, you have to go back to the game board and see what’s off. Is the reward no longer rewarding? If so, change and find something more precious to them.
Above all, we want to help the child establish a positive association toward caring for their oral health.
Model it for them. Brush your teeth, floss, oil pull, all in front of them. Let them in on your oral hygiene routine and you will be giving them the very best opportunity to copy your healthy habits. That’s empowering them with habits to navigate this path to optimal oral health.
In the next article in this series, we will discuss what to do when it doesn’t go as planned, how to troubleshoot the process and effectively get teeth brushed in the face of resistance.
So, please ask your questions about this idea in the comments below and we will address your questions in the upcoming article.
Was this information helpful to you? What do you do differently that works for you? Please share with us here so we can all learn from what’s worked for you.
Want to take a deeper dive how to stop decay in your home? Download our FREE eBook, How to Stop Tooth Decay and Remineralize Your Teeth.
Helpful, Related Resources:
How to Stop Tooth Decay and Remineralize Your Teeth [FREE eBook]
5 Steps to a Healthy Mouth [[free video tutorial series]]
Are dental sealants safe? [article]
4 steps to help your kids live a cavity free life [article]
OraWellness Shine [product solution]
HealThy Mouth Blend [product solution]
Natural Alternative to Toxic Baby Teething Gels [article from The Healthy Home Economist]