Gentle Parenting Ideas: Toddlers and Brushing Teeth

May 12th, 2010 by Dionna | 34 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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In a recent post for the Carnival of Gentle Discipline1 hosted by The Baby Dust Diaries, I detailed a few of the recurring struggles in our house:

1) Brushing teeth;

2) Getting into the car seat;

3) Eating;

4) Grocery shopping;

5) Diaper changes; and

6) Picking up toys.

I promised a series of posts dedicated to each of these, because they represent fairly normal areas of concern between toddlers and parents. This first post in the series is all about brushing teeth. I hope some of theses ideas will help you meet your toddler’s needs for autonomy while also taking care of their need to learn good oral hygiene.

2009-03-09 01Ideas to Make Tooth Brushing a Positive Experience

Start early: from the time your baby cuts his teeth, get in there every day with a toothbrush. You don’t need toothpaste – just wet the bristles. This will help get your child accustomed to the feel of the brush and the routine of brushing. Don’t force the brush into his mouth though, ask him. Let him hold and play with the brush, let him help. Make it fun – smile, sing, playfully tap his nose with the brush. Make the experience a fun one, but at some point try to get in there and tell him “and now we’re brushing your teeth! Let’s get them nice and clean.” (or something to that effect)

Let them see you brush your teeth: I know, we never get the bathroom to ourselves. But in this case it might help establish good habits. Brush and floss in front of your child – be a role model!

Let them brush your teeth: turn about is fair play, right? Let your child have some control – give her the chance to brush your teeth too. Having someone brush your teeth can induce a feeling of helplessness or loss of control (think about what it’s like to sit in the dentist’s chair!). Your child might feel better if she can regain some of that control by being in the brusher’s position.

Try fun toothbrushes: toothbrushes come in a variety of colors and designs. You can find toothbrushes that spin, toothbrushes that talk, and toothbrushes with your child’s favorite character.

Allow your toddler to choose a flavor: once you start using toothpaste,2 get a variety of flavors and let your child choose which one to use at each brushing. Again, this gives him some control of the situation.

Get a special cup to rinse with: Kieran uses his Jayhawk cup, and it’s only for rinsing. He loves standing on his step stool to fill the cup, take a drink, and dump it out. Getting a minute to play in the water is definitely part of the draw.

Use a timer or have a special song: if your main gripe is the amount of time your toddler lets you brush, get a timer (find one that doesn’t scare your toddler when it rings) or try singing a long (and silly) song.

Tell stories: create happy, magical stories about brushing teeth. Please, don’t tell scary stories about “the kids who don’t brush.” Make the stories something your child will look forward to – let him be the star of the story. If your toddler is old enough to help narrate, let him fill in some of the details of the story as you brush.

Brush a doll: get a doll or stuffed animal, and let your toddler brush the doll’s teeth. Pay attention while she acts it out – you can learn what parts of tooth brushing might be scary or uncomfortable for her, and you can talk to her about ways to make it more comfortable. For ideas on how to use make-believe a time to reconnect and work through problems, pick up a copy of Playful Parenting.

Make a schedule: if your toddler gets comfort from seeing her schedule, create a chart of what activities you do each morning and evening (those are the two times of day we brush). Using pictures, show a typical sequence – wake up, go potty, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth. It might be comforting for your toddler to know “what comes next.”

Take special shopping trips: make your toddler part of the toothbrush and toothpaste decisions – take him shopping and let him help you pick out his special supplies.

Have a “toothbrush hunt”: when it’s time to switch brushes, hide the new toothbrush and give your toddler clues about where to find it.

Brush the food away: As you brush, pretend that you are brushing away all of the food your toddler ate that day. Let your toddler help you “find” bits of food. “Whoa – did you see that back there? Blueberry pancake! Wait – I see some of the carrots we had at lunch!”

For all of these ideas, I would caution parents not to use any of them as “rewards” for good tooth brushing. You don’t want to turn brushing teeth into a “rewards” v. “punishment” experience. Try to make it positive each time, even if it takes longer than you’d like or it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Have faith that your toddler will learn how to brush her teeth eventually, it just takes patience and kindness from you now.

What ideas do you have to help make brushing teeth a good experience? Please share them in the comments.


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  1. Parenting a toddler can be tough. Here we have these little people with minds of their own, and their wants often don’t mesh with our ideas of what is good for them. Thus power struggles are born. Parents have three options in the face of a power struggle:
    1) force your will onto your child by power, coercion, or duress;
    2) give in to the child;
    3) use love and reason to come to a solution with the child.
    The goal in our house is to use the third option. We do not believe that forcing Kieran into compliance, or alternatively never having expectations of him, teaches him how to function in society. We would rather use love and logic (and when necessary, “gentle discipline”) so that everyone comes out of potential power struggles with their needs met.
  2. For information on why you should consider choosing fluoride-free toothpaste, read “Fluoride: What Every Parent Should Know” by Paige at Baby Dust Diaries.

34 Responses to:
"Gentle Parenting Ideas: Toddlers and Brushing Teeth"

  1. Sarah @ OneStarryNight   onestarrynight

    Fabulous suggestions! With DS1, he always seems to do a better job brushing his teeth when he’s doing it with Dad lol. We’ve already discussed that we need to get a wee tiny toothbrush for Tristan to play with and get used to.

  2. Melodie   bfmom

    This is the most in depth and helpful post I’ve ever read on brushing teeth with kids. Thanks for all the new ideas I am now walking away with! I know they are going to help a whole lot!

  3. My kids like the toothpaste too much. They’d eat it for breakfast if I let them…

    Also, while brushing is a good habit, I’m not sure how much it really helps. I know someone who absolutely NEVER brushes his teeth and has zero cavities (and he’s almost 40), and I know people who brush and floss twice a day and have root canals in their 20s.

    I had a whole bunch of cavities in my teens (5-6 in one year), and then I got a mouth guard to keep me from grinding my teeth and have not had a cavity since.

    In short, I’m skeptical as to how much it helps.

    For right now, I’m trying to build the habit more than actually get the teeth brushed (kids are tiny) so I put a tiny dot of toothpaste, brush for as long as they’ll tolerate (usually get about 1/2 of the mouth), let them play with the brush for a while, try another round (usually don’t get the other half done), and declare them brushed.

  4. Marilyn   ALotofLoves

    My 19-month-old daughter will let me brush her teeth if I am holding her in front of the bathroom mirror. She likes to see herself have her teeth brushed. If I take her away from the mirror or set her down on the counter or floor it’s game over.

  5. My kids are a little older so we play music when it’s time to brush. When the music stops, then they can stop, but not before.

  6. Melissa Ann

    We play the “let’s see here” game while we brush. I say, “Let’s see here…” and then I proceed to “find” all the food that he’s eaten since the last brushing. He thinks it hilarious, which helps him keep his mouth open. It also helps him to understand why we have to brush them at all….

  7. Sheryl @ Little Snowflakes   sheryljesin

    It is sooo easy to make tooth brushing a power struggle!! We’ve had some luck with some of the things you mentioned. We let Dylan brush our teeth at the same time someone brushes his teeth. We’ve also made it part of our bedtime routine so he knows it is coming. He knows every night he takes a bath, brushes his teeth, puts on a clean diaper and gets into pjs. We call it the “rules” and he can (happily) recite them! One other sort of strange thing that works: we talk about all the food that he ate that day and how we can see little pieces of it in his teeth and that the brush is brushing them out. For some reason he likes that!

  8. Brenda   maripoopoopoo

    Thanks! These really are some awesome teeth brushing tips, sadly I have tried nearly all of them, but letting my daughter brush mine. My next step is to have her brush my teeth and incorporate what Sheryl (and Melissa Ann) said about while she brushes mine I brush hers and talk about what she ate….I think I just need a miracle!! Plus I have taken her to the dentist twice to get her comfortable with that ordeal!

    My daughter is really really sensitive to anything to do with her face/head: ear cleaning, applying sunscreen and not face related – – nail cutting! She will let me do her hair usually, depends on her mood :D

  9. Ms. Krieger

    Thank you for this post. My DD likes to chew on her Elmo toothbrush but adamantly refuses to let me brush her teeth…I’ll try the tip about letting her brush mine. Lots of good ideas!

    and @LeahGG

    Flossing and brushing really do prevent cavities. Never doubt it. Don’t take your cue from people who never brush and have perfect teeth – some people just don’t have the cavity-causing bacteria in their mouths. I know, life’s unfair – you’re infected with your mouth flora by your parents when you’re a baby, can’t do anything about it except have good oral hygiene. If you get cavities despite flossing and brushing, you’re either doing it wrong or eating too many acidic/sweet foods (or have mechanical damage to your teeth, such as grinding.) Have your dentist show you the right way to floss and brush. And good luck teaching your toddler!

  10. Ariela

    We have a three year old and just found out that he has the type of teeth that are prone to caries. The dentist said we must brush his teeth (he had been doign it up to then). She suggested that if he doesn’t cooperate to hold him down and force him. What do you suggest. He really doesn’t let us brush his teeth.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I completely disagree with your dentist’s suggestion to hold him down. Physically forcing him to submit to your will will only make him resent you and hate brushing his teeth. You want to help your son gain a lifelong appreciation for oral hygiene. More importantly, you want him to trust you and have confidence that you respect his body and his needs/wishes. Holding him down and terrifying him is not the way to do that.
      I would recommend the book “Playful Parenting” to you, first. Cohen can explain so much better than I can why play can connect parents and kids over issues that look like struggles at first. Please, it will give you a new outlook. Then I would suggest you try some of these suggestions – try making tooth brushing a game. If one of these doesn’t work for you, try something else. You know what your son loves, do a variation and add a toothbrush. Does he have a bike he could ride inside? Bring it in and let him ride it around while brushing. Does he like painting? Get him a special toothbrush to paint with, then talk about how he can “paint” his teeth. I love a couple of the ideas in the comments – esp. talking about all the food he ate that day (we tried it with Kieran this week and he got a kick out of it).
      At three years old, your son can very likely tell you a little bit about why he doesn’t like tooth brushing. Sit down with him in a non-threatening, non-confrontational way – gently talk about why it is important to brush teeth. Maybe present it in story form (but don’t scare him with the threat of cavities). Tell him that you would like his help coming to a solution, that you want him to help you think of ways that he would feel comfortable brushing his teeth. Give him some of the control back – that’s likely at least part of why he doesn’t like it, he feels very out of control.
      And when you do find something that works, I hope you come back and share your success story :)

    • Please don’t hold him down! Try these suggestions. My 3.5 year old son is autistic and is extremely resistant to having anything done near his face. After he had his first two fillings, I found the right thing that works for him. If your son is resistant, and it doesn’t sound like he is so if it isn’t broken don’t fix it, try these suggestions. What worked for my son is he decided he likes the song Teddy Bears Picnic. So when he gets out of the tub I lay a towel on my lap, he lays on his back on my lap, I sing the Teddy Bears Picnic and he lays there and lets me brush his teeth. If I forget, he reminds me to brush his teeth. Don’t force it, just keep trying until you find the right gentle fit for your child.

  11. I’m so glad I found you! My husband and I raised three kids this way and homeschooled them into college, all with a natural, interest-led approach. Wondering if you are thinking of homeschooling.

    I miss those days of young ones! You are doing a great job. So nice to see support online. I remember trying to find brochures and phone numbers for natural parenting organizations (early 1990’s). Gotta love the net. :)

  12. michelle   TheParentVortex

    Toothbrushing can really get to be a power struggle. In our house, toothbrushing is a non-negotiable, like being strapped into the carseat while we’re driving. We have tried all your suggestions, as well as “hunting” for animals, hockey players, etc in her mouth while brushing. The playful approach is great and works the vast majority of the time.

    I hate to say it, but there were nights where NONE of the games worked and I told her – We need to brush your teeth so they stay healthy. You can either open your mouth and let me brush them or I will open your mouth with my finger so I can brush your teeth. What do you choose? And she screamed “NOTHING!” and could no longer be reasoned with, so I held her firmly and opened her mouth myself. Definitely a last-resort approach, but even Dr Sears says sometimes you will need to brush teeth against your toddler’s will. That said, taking a playful approach is so much better for everyone and should definitely be tried first.

    One other thing that has worked wonders for encouraging cooperation with toothbrushing is looking at the gap where her dad’s tooth had been extracted. Nothing like a bit of solid evidence to prove our claims that sugar bugs hurt your teeth!

  13. Desiree

    I agree that the playful approach is best but when my (now 3.5yo) was younger NOTHING worked. Everyday I wrestled with her to brush her teeth. Now she loves to brush her teeth. She still complains when I do it but it’s nothing compared to what she used to be like. I continue to wrestle with my 17 month old to brush her teeth. I’m going to try letting her brush my teeth while I brush hers.

  14. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Great advice. Thanks! I am struggling with my 17 month old who bites on the toothbrush as soon as we start to brush in her mouth, and the rest of the time she plays with it in her mouth. Not really brushing…
    The dentist suggested I use a clean cloth to go over her teeth. What do you think of the idea?

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I remember when Kieran was that age, he definitely wasn’t ready to brush by himself. Honestly, I still wouldn’t trust him at 29 months to get the whole job done. But it’s nice to encourage the attempt/desire – so I say let her have at it, just make sure you get in there for a good couple of minutes (sing a couple of songs?) and brush her yourself.
      As far as the clean cloth, if you don’t feel like you are getting the gunk with a toothbrush, you could finish up with the clean cloth, but I wouldn’t use it as a replacement.

      • Meg

        my dentist suggested if you’re not happy with the job that’s getting done at brushing time, to wait until they are deeply asleep and get in there to polish up with a soft cloth.

  15. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Thanks Dionna for the advice.
    I would love to contribute with a guest post about the Joys of breastfeeding a toddler. I will write a post and send to you?

  16. This post if featured in the May Gentle Discipline Fair! Let you readers know by adding the badge to your post! Code is available here:

  17. Schussel   frauschussel

    Great to see all these gentle tips. But I am also a little helpless, given that we have literally tried them all (!) with our 16 month old. He already has a lot of teeth, 16 by now, so brushing is kind of important. But whether it is the new brush with the bear, or him choosing the type of tooth paste… he does all that and enjoys spitting water and playing around, he just doesn’t let us brush at all. We don’t want to make this into a power struggle, but then I think of my AP friend who had the same problem and her child now has uncountable cavities at the age of three…. so, I have no idea what to do next. Thank you anyway for helping other parents to find a peaceful way.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Wow – all of them?! Then perhaps you have a few more tips you could add to the list ;) I think at 16 months, he might not be ready for some of these anyway. I would keep trying to do it the gentle way, and try to find the way that you can just brush him with the least trauma/struggling. Teeth brushing is not an option for me, because my genetics = prone to cavities. So even if we’ve tried several things and Kieran doesn’t want to brush, we brush. Before that point, I usually just give him some time – if he has a warning, he’s much less likely to get upset. Good luck – hopefully your son will mellow with age!

  18. When I saw this was a previous post, I immediately clicked on it! With our first child, teeth-brushing became a total power struggle and most of the time we did resort to holding him down. I knew little of any types of gentle parenting techniques back then and it makes me sad to think we did that.

    Our son is now 7 and our daughter is almost 14 months. A LOT has changed in my knowledge and beliefs in regards to parenting. But it is so crucial for me to see/read real-life suggestions for gentle parenting techniques. With our daughter, at first we used the litte gum massager that fits over your finger. She loved it! Then we switched to a toothbrush and at first, she like the novelty of it. That wore off quickly. :) I felt myself quickly realize that I HAD to start finding creative ways to make teeth-brushing positive and not turn into a power struggle, like it did with our son. Here’s what I’ve found thus far that has helped:

    -Since she doesn’t walk yet, I do teeth-brushing on the changing table. Sometimes she starts to cry the moment I lay her down and I always have something to hand her: the toothpaste, a piece of paper, a toy, etc. That usually calms her down quickly.

    -Then I sing a little tooth-brushing song I made up and at the end of the song I go, “We open our mouth and say ‘Ahhhh!'” And I found that she usually will mimic by opening her mouth wide! So cute.

    -I try not to push it when she become resistent and just call it good.

    All the tips you have in this post are great and I’m eager to implement some of them when my tricks wear out! Great stuff here, thank you.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Great ideas, thank you for sharing them! I hope some of the other ideas work well for you too. Good for you for being open to learning about gentle parenting techniques – I’m sure your son is reaping the benefits from them now :)

  19. Jennifer   LadyJKL

    question – if i didn’t start early with tooth brushing and she just wants to do it herself but doesn’t’ actually make contact with any of her teeth / only brushes one the whole time, what do i do? we’ve been ending up pinning her down to do it. :(

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Jennifer – Sometimes it takes us a few minutes of playing before Kieran is willing to let us brush. At times he brushes himself first, then brushes me for a minute, then he’s willing to open up. Other times it takes one of the games or methods listed above. I would keep at it – if you’ve been pinning her down, she’s probably lost trust in the process, so you might have a little more work to do to get her to trust that tooth brushing will now be comfortable for her. Good luck! Let me know if you find something different that works.

  20. Ok, I know this post is older, but now I’ve run into a total dead-end with all my previous positive teeth-brushing techniques. Help!!! :)

    For a while, our 14 month old was willing to let me brush a little bit after she’d played with the toothbrush herself. But then she starting getting more resistent. I wondered if the toothbrush was hurting her upper gums, where she was cutting teeth. So I thought I’d switch back to using a finger “gum massager” type toothbrush again, b/c it’d be gentler. That worked for a couple days, then she became resistent even to THAT!! Now I’m in a place where she won’t even let me in her mouth at all. I try toys to distract, singing, being positive…nothing is working. And I absolutely do not want to pin her down. But she does need her teeth brushed at least one time a day, preferably twice.

    I also thought that maybe a change of scenario would help, since maybe she was now associating the changing table as a negative place for teeth-brushing. No go. :( Tried sitting the recliner with her and same deal–she played with the toothbrush for minute, then when I gently tried to brush she immediately forcibly pushed it away and turned her head.

    I don’t know what else to try. I take some reassurance knowing that she only has 4 full erupted teeth, plus 2 more that are halfway in. Plus she is nursing. I’m thinking that maybe for a few days I need to not worry at all about getting the teeth clean, but about giving her some space and control? Like just let her play with the brush each time and she resists me brushing, I’ll immediately stop. Thoughts? Ideas?

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Hmm, my first thought is that it’s probably normal – do you notice her asserting her new-found independence in other ways too? Is she wanting to do more things by herself? It could just be a normal part of discovering that she has the ability to say no.
      Honestly, I think you’re doing wonderful – trying different things, different locations, different tactics. Maybe try the different brushes idea? Would she think it was neat to have an electric toothbrush? And at that age, Kieran was really fascinated brushing my teeth – could you “take turns”? Or let her brush you or a doll at the same time you are brushing her?
      What about making it into a game where you brush different parts of her – sometimes when Kieran is being particularly anti-brush, I’ll brush his nose (a tiny bit), his eyelid, his cheek – when he laughs, I’ll swipe his teeth – hopefully he’s associating brushing with fun.

  21. You know I just realized something that may have contributed to her negative view of teeth-brushing. The past couple of weeks she has started this new (very annoying!) habit of “pocketing” food in her mouth that she then cannot swallow. With certain foods, she has a harder time mashing them up, combined with putting more food in her mouth before she’s swallowed the previous, thus she ends up w/ a mouthful of food! What ends up happening is that we offer her drinks, to try to help her swallow the large amount of food, etc, but often she pushes it away and is left figure out what to do with all this food in her mouth!! (Pretty funny, actually! She sits there like a chipmunk with her cheeks full!!) But eventually, if she won’t spit it out or swallow it, we must scoop the food out of mouth manually, because of choking risk. And she HATES this! But it truly is a safety concern. We try to watch her carefully while she’s eating and offer her cup every couple bites to keep her from pocketing food, but we’re not perfect at this. Anyway, now I’m wondering if she’s associating teeth-brushing with having food scooped out of her mouth. As in, she’s perceiving teeth-brushing as something “invasive,” like when we manually remove food from her mouth.

    But then, what to do about this negative association?? All your suggestions are good, I need to take notes. :) Thanks so much for your input!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      You are so intuitive – I bet you’re right! Interesting dilemma . . . I think I’m actually going to put your question out on my Facebook page to see if we can get any wise mamas’ input. Are you a “fan” on FB? I imagine many people will actually answer there instead of clicking on this thread. Stop by and see what they have to say, and I’ll keep thinking in the meantime!

      • Thanks so much! Can’t remember if I’m a fan or not, but if not I will “like” it. Surely there are othere mamas out there who’ve gone thru similar dilemmas!

      • this sounds like your daughter has a sensitivity in her mouth. it’s a sensory issue, I will bet. Some children are hypersensitive, orally, especially. Or undersensitive, etc. Also, she could be having trouble coordinating her chew, move tongue, swallow process. I would look into some sensory defensiveness and perhaps even consult an occupational therapists. I don’t know where you live, but most cities offer these evals cost-free.

        Also, try just putting 3 bites of food in front of her at a time. Like 5 peas, or 2 small squares of sandwich, so that she CAN’T stuff her mouth. then when she’s finished those bites, swallowed everything, put more in front of her, etc.

  22. Great advice. We see children come into our dental practice all the time who have resistance to brushing. Promoting oral hygiene as being completely normal is the goal! I also suggest applying some of these techniques for flossing too. It’s a great way to prevent kids from needing a visit to a dental surgery like ours for some painful treatment :)

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