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 basic talking points and strategies you can use whenever you get pushback from your child about taking care of their teeth.
- 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.
- Brush your teeth alongside your child in the morning and the evening. Little kids like to copy adult behaviors.
- 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.
- Cater to their preferences. If your child only wants bubble gum-flavored toothpaste, don’t insist on mint. If they want to try an electric toothbrush (oh, the novelty!), that’s fine. Whatever gets them brushing.
- Offer lots of choices. Instead of mandating when exactly your child needs to brush their teeth, ask if they want to brush them before or after they get dressed in the morning. This makes them feel in control without letting them off the hook.
- Take turns. Allow your child to brush their own teeth first, and then tell them it’s your turn. Kids under six don’t have the motor skills to be able 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.
- Play pretend. Little kids will love brushing the teeth of their favorite dolls and stuffed animals, so give them a dollar store toothbrush and let them role-play dentist. See if they can explain to their toys why brushing is so important; teaching often reinforces learning.
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 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 basic 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 one small 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 be able to memorize these steps with a little 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.
Help Your Child Develop 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.
In the beginning, you’ll have to do more prompting—and you may have to remind yourself to remind them. After a few weeks, though, you can step back and see how well they are remembering on their own.
Once you feel your child has successfully taken on the responsibility by themselves, you still can’t go fully hands-off. You should plan to check in with your child on a regular basis to ask them if they’re remembering 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 make sure 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.