One of the biggest challenges we hear parents talk about – and our own experience reinforces – is getting our children to brush their teeth. When they are little it can be just the beginning act of getting them to open their mouths long enough to get those first furtive but all important cleanings in to when they are pre-teens shrugging off our admonishments to “be sure to brush your teeth!” as they head to their rooms for bed (giving us that “yeah, right” look that is almost a rite of passage).
Speaking from experience, setting the tone and expectation that we brush our teeth every morning and every night, no exceptions – is critical as early as possible so that by the time they are throwing you that pre-teen look you’ll know that the look is just a gesture that is part and parcel of the impending teen years because the tooth brushing habit is so ingrained it’s a done deal. In those early first cleanings I played games while singing silly songs I made up related to a helicopter or airplane (my finger with a baby washcloth followed by a baby toothbrush in hand) circling the horizon playfully to come into the hanger or airport. I used my goofy singing and hand play to distract them while I did the brushing for them. And then I’d say, “Now your mouth and (once they started to come in) your teeth are all clean! Just like we wash the rest of you we need to keep your mouth and teeth clean, too!”
Gradually we transitioned by around the age of 18 months to 2 years old to them making an attempt to brush their teeth and gums followed by my doing it, with a gameful “first you do, then I do” and some fun clapping and YEAH’s! afterwards. By the time they were 3 years old we’d start talking about how important cleaning your teeth is for keeping the cavities away. When I’d be tempted by my own exhaustion or my child’s endearing “please, please, please just FIVE more minutes!!” to put off the whole bedtime routine I’d try to remember how much harder it would get with every minute later that I waited to get it done. How much more likely that little adorable mouth would be shut in a set line and not respond to my energetic songs and play.
Over time I transitioned to them taking the lead on brushing and my keeping an eye on what they were doing to inject tips like remember to brush the inside and outside of your teeth! And if they finished in too much of a lickety split saying let’s play a song that you’ll brush your teeth to, making sure my iPhone had the right length songs and that it was nearby but not in range of the water being messed with by my son at the sink.
When they got too old for me to hover over them (no matter how diplomatically) in the bathroom, I would stop by their room for a goodnight at bedtime that also gave me the opportunity to surreptitiously check their breath for tell tale signs of fibbing about brushing their teeth. If it smelled suspicious I would give that “Mom” look I tried to perfect and ask, “Did you brush your teeth?” And then if they said yes (and usually since thankfully my kids are not good liars this would be said very unconvincingly), I would say “Are you sure? Because it smells like someone snuck in some nasty breath in your mouth. Hmmm, I wonder how that could have happened if you already brushed your teeth?!” When they grew older I also started to use snarky lines appropriate for the preteen years like “Make sure to floss all the teeth you want to keep!”
I always appreciated that my pediatric dentist would give me a good assessment of whether we were doing a good enough job of whether our efforts were paying off or where we needed to improve. If something like the Cavity Dragons app had existed back then, I would have encouraged them to brush their teeth to get rid of the cavity dragons, be your own fireman and brush them all away!
Share your tips in the comments below, we would love to hear what has worked well for you!