My Baby/Toddler/Child Hates Brushing…Help!

My BabyToddler ChildTeen Hates BrushigThis is very likely the MOST common concern we hear from parents here at NoPo Kids…”My child hates it when I brush their teeth and I am afraid I am going to create emotional trauma if I force it!”

Oh, man…I know this feeling all too well. I am a mother first and foremost and it seems like only yesterday when I would ask my husband to close the bedroom windows in the summer for our brushing and flossing sessions so our neighbors wouldn’t think I was torturing my kiddos. But please know, this is common and this, too,  shall pass.  In fact, it is more common to have a child that hates oral hygiene than it is to have a child who is cool, calm, and collected for brushing and flossing over those first few years of life. That being said, I am here to offer support and this advice…just do it. I mean, you don’t need to aggressively pin them down, but gently restraining kids for dental care is a very necessary thing and I assure you, the more consistent you are with it, the easier it will get. I pinky-swear promise you.

I often share my story with parents here at the office, telling them how I used to do adult dentistry and wasn’t loving it. I was constantly bummed out by being told not only how many people HATE the dentist, but have legitimate fear (terror?) about having their teeth cleaned, checked, and worked on. And you know what?  Not one person ever sited a traumatic memory of their parents brushing or flossing their teeth as a child. Do you remember this? I sure don’t! Rather, almost every person I met recalls a horrible experience as a child getting their teeth fixed after being diagnosed with cavities (arguably from lack or homecare and poor diet). It got me thinking…it doesn’t have to be this way! How can I help to shape children into adults that not only care about their teeth and well-being, but love going to the dentist?! I mean, if your mouth is heathy, coming to the dentist is no big deal, right?! Luckily I was accepted in to the Pediatric Dental Residency program here at OHSU and the rest is history.

It all starts from birth…honestly. Before there are even teeth you can start desensitizing your child by doing gentle wipes of the gums and tongue daily with small facecloths or xylitol wipes. This will help your child get used to having their mouth touched as well as to help reduce bacteria in the mouth. Once teeth erupt, usually around 6 months old, I started my kids with a little silicone finger brush and that ever-present-at-every-baby-shower banana brush. Both are wonderful.  If your child feeds throughout the night, wiping the mouth and teeth after feedings is ideal, and certainly brushing every morning and night will help reduce bacterial load and acids in the mouth and will help to create a habit and routine in your child. I think my girls were around 2.5 years old before the brushing/flossing and screaming stopped completely. It was a gradual change, some nights being better than others, but eventually the switch went off and “poof,” it became a non-issue. Now at 5.5 and 3.5 years old, they are tooth-hygiene-ninjas and it is honestly only due to consistency (and constantly talking about germs in our mouth and cavities, etc). I also recommend to introduce a manual toothbrush or an electric toothbrush around 1 or so. I know most electric brushes say to wait until kids ae older, but I personally do not have any concerns with using a spin brush from an early age and believe it actually helps to expedite desensitizing your child to the “tooth routine,” plus it does a much better job of cleaning than a manual brush does!

Survival tips!

1) Remember: you are NOT hurting your child with brushing and flossing. They just don’t like it. My kids hated diaper changes, face wipings, and hair washings, but we did it no matter what. I want teeth to fall into the “no matter what” category. Avoiding cavities from ever starting is really what our goal should be from the very beginning.  Plus more and more research is linking disease and bacteria originating in the oral cavity to systemic diseases, so you truly are setting children up for better overall health by dialing in the oral hygiene routine from a young age.

2) If still in diapers, try brushing and flossing on the changing table. In the top drawer of my table, I used to have diapers, diaper cream and toiletries, and a toothbrush basket with tooth brushes (various types to play around with), toothpaste, tooth wipes and flossers. You are typically at that changing table every morning and every night, so why not stream-line life a little and do it there? Trust me…it works.

3) Sing songs (there was a lot of Katy Perry “Roaring” at our house in those early years), chase animals around their mouths, or play memory games! I used to pretend to see what my kids ate that day in their mouths.

“Sloan, what did we have for breakfast?”
“Oh, right, let me get all of the scrambled eggs and broccoli out of your teeth! How about lunch?”
“Soup and blueberries!”
“Oh, yea, let’s get ‘em outta there!”

You get the point.

I would shoot for around minute of brushing (or two rounds of ABC’s).  The “two minute” guide is really for full adult dentition and I prefer a quick but thorough one minute session to a drag-out-combative-teary two minute session.  Less can be more here.  Just try to be quick, but THOROUGH (ie:  get outsides by the checks and insides by the tongue).  And please, please, please floss daily anywhere teeth touch, especially back molars!!

4) For children that are reaaaallllly tough, sometimes you may need to use more clever tactics and positioning. You can place them on changing tables, bean bag chairs, the couch or beds and gently lie on them/rest your body on them (having someone assist with hands, legs and head can help), swaddle them in a big beach towel, or if with another adult try the lap to lap position. For those of you that have been to our office, you know this position well as it is how we approach the first few dental visits until the child will sit in the “big chair.” I am a HUGE advocate for lying kids back to brush and floss. There is a reason the dentist lays you back…you can see so much better and the angles and ergonomics are much easier. Plus, it gets them used to this position for future dental visits. I still often brush and floss my girls on their beds right before nighttime stories. I use either a non-fluoridated toothpaste (look up Theodent toothpaste…it is amazing) or only a tiny smear of fluoridated toothpaste (I like Kiss My Face, Berry Smart) if they are still not spitting or if you are brushing in the bedroom where spitting may not be happening. If your child has mastered the art of spitting, a pea-sized amount is generally sufficient for bathroom brushing.

5) Older kids seem to really get into their oral hygiene routine with the addition of charts. We have brushing and flossing charts on our website under KIDS CHARTS to print out at home and we also give them out at dental appointments. I use charts for almost everything at home: good sleeping, good manners, helping with keeping our home neat and tidy, etc. They are magic and seem to empower most children to embrace their homecare, overall health, and to be good humans! Rewards at the end of a chart’s completion helps, too. And if your kids fill them out and bring them in to us we have extra prizes for them! It’s a win-win for everyone!

6) I am not always a big advocate for more screen time, but parents of older kids often use tooth brushing and flossing as a way for kids to earn screen time. Give it a try?! I also really want parents supervising or helping to assist with brushing, and especially flossing, until kids are around 10 years old. This is an age based on my clinical experience and, of course, each child is different, but I find the understanding and dexterity simply isn’t there until kids are older. You will hear us say this to all kiddo’s here at the office…hit double digits and you can likely be free to brush and floss on your own.

7) Games and Podcasts! I have had many parent report that Sonicare Kids and their app for kids has changed their lives. It links via Bluetooth to your phone and allows the kids to chase ‘sugar bugs’ around their mouths, actually recording where kids are missing most and helping to get kids to focus on problem spots. Also, Chompers is a wonderful Podcast released twice a day (morning and night) to help motivate and excite kids about oral hygiene…check it out. Most kids seem to love it based on the smiles on their parent’s faces, relieved that the brushing battles have subsided a bit at home.

8) Flossing ideas: for trying to get older kids into good flossing (and brushing) habits, try buying a suction mirror for the shower and leave floss and a toothbrush/toothpaste in the shower. This is how I got my hubby to floss daily and it works! Leave flossers on the nightstand, in the car, near the TV viewing area, in backpacks, at reading stations…get creative. I don’t care where it happens, I just want it to be happening, ideally daily. Also, if you have older children, try looking for books or Google searching about dental hygiene and dental disease…the stuff you will find can certainly be very motivating for all of us. Dental disease is now being very strongly tied to increases in various systemic diseases, and most older kids will grasp this concept easily. Education is key! We have some great books and images here at the office that we are happy to share with your child if you think this may help them. Let us know!

I know this is a lot to process and when you come to see us we will happily share more tips and tricks  and positioning tactics with you. I am all about parental survival and will work with you to come up with ideas that will meet your individual family needs. Also, check out our YouTube channel (Doctor Staci) for my video showing positioning ideas for smaller kiddo’s. Stay strong parents! You got this! Try to keep it positive and educational and everyone will come out ahead! #nomorecavities #eatarainbow #flossisboss


Love and Health,

Doctor Staci and the NoPo Kids Team xo

The information provided on this site is not intended as medical or dental advice and should not be interpreted as such. The intent is to provide as much scientific information as possible on different dental materials and aspects of dentistry where controversy exists and scientific clarification would be of benefit to patients, staff, dentists, physicians and scientists in making informed judgments. If you seek medical or dental advice, please consult with a health care professional. You must always exercise your own best judgement when using the services of any health care practitioner.

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