This post is not about oral hygiene. This is a post on how to teach your toddler to tolerate having their teeth brushed, and help you eliminate the nightly battle of brushing teeth.
One of the best tips I can give is to practice these steps when it is not time to brush their teeth. I’ve seen children’s anxiety build during their morning and night time routine when they know brushing their teeth is about to happen. You can take the steps I give you below, and try them in the middle of the day anywhere besides the bathroom.
Start on the body
This is the most important part to the entire process. This will also tell you a lot about how they reposed to “impose input” from somebody else, and if they need support.
Some kids need a little extra support with getting into their mouth. Think about the experience of what it’s like to have someone walk up to you and stick something directly into your mouth. As an adult you might be able to tolerate this (i.e. the dentist). You also have a clear understanding of the dentist any what they are about to do. You’re little one may not as your about to brush their teeth. Think about your little one and try to imagine what this might feel like.
You may need to take a couple of steps back before moving forward. Prior to asking the child to open their mouth to brush their teeth, let’s warm up their sensory system by getting on their body with deep pressure massage or squeezes.
Move from peripheral (outside) to central (middle) while singing a song. Singing is a great way to engage toddlers, or distract them from the task at hand (which ever they need).
Start by gently squeezing their hands as you start the song. Squeeze from the hands, up the forearms, to the biceps, to the shoulders, then face. When you get to the face you can do a gentle but firm squeeze with open palms from the ears to the chin. Think of it like smushing their cheeks. I like to count up as I start and end with a smush! “One, two, three, four, five, smush!” Make up your own silly sayings (“I’m, going, to, brush, your, teeth!”), or sing a favorite song as you do this 2-3 times.
Imagine going from least invasive (finger tips), to most invasive (inside mouth). See where they start to get squeamish or resist. If they resist at the shoulder, stop there, and go back to the elbow. Wherever they seem to have a hard time, go to the area of the body right before that and practice at that point. It may seem silly, but what you’re doing is slowly normalizing their sensory system to be able to tolerate imposed input from an adult in their mouth.
Introduce the toothbrush
After you’ve done the massage with your hands 2-3 times, try taking the back of the toothbrush and doing the same movement from the finger tips to the face while singing and gently tapping the toothbrush on the child.
Imagine going from least invasive (finger tips), to most invasive (inside mouth). See where they start to get squeamish or resist. If they resist at the shoulder, stop there, and go back to the elbow. Wherever they seem to have a hard time, go to the area of the body right before that and practice at that point. It may seem silly, but what you’re doing is slowly desensitizing them at the area that they are able to handle.
Have a routine and a song
Imagine not knowing how long you’re going to have to do something you’re uncomfortable with. Toddlers don’t understand, “one minute” or time in general. Having a song like the ABC’s, will let your child know exactly how long you’re going to brush their teeth. After a while, your child will begin to understand, mom sings the ABC’s then this is done.
Start Small and Grow
Once you get in their mouth to brush, that’s a big deal. If they tolerate four brushes, praise them, and see if they will do, “one more, then all done!” Four becomes five, five becomes six, until they are tolerating you brushing their teeth for a sufficient amount of time.
Experiment with Toothpaste Flavor
Flavor is a huge deal breaker when it comes to brushing teeth. It’s an important and easy factor to experiment with during their routine. I’ve found that brushing teeth became a battle simply because of the flavor of the toothpaste. The parent thought it was the act of brushing the child’s teeth, when in reality the child just couldn’t tolerate the flavor of the toothpaste. Once the flavor was switched from minty to sweet or vise versa, the child begins to tolerate the routine.
Have a Small Reward at the End
This is a good opportunity to practice, “first ___, then ___”. Have a special book or toy they are motivated by and try, “first daddy brushes your teeth, then we will read Brown bear.” Keep that book, or toy ONLY for brushing teeth so it stays special and motivating. Figure out what motivates them, that’s small and available during their routine and use this to motivate them to participate.
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About the Author
DRAKE HASTINGS M.S., CCC-SLP
Drake Hastings is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in speech, oral motor, and feeding therapy for kids. Drake has a passion for working with children and families while helping children achieve goals using a fun and motivating approach to learning.
Drake’s main areas of focus within the practice are feeding therapy, and speech (sound production) therapy. Drake has experience working with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Apraxia of Speech, Dysarthria, Down Syndrome, and rare genetic disorders. Drake has experience working and collaborating with a wide variety of families and therapeutic team members while treating children of all ages.