Teeth-brushing for 2-year-olds

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 2, 2009 06:00 AM

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You know that adage, don't sweat the small stuff? This is small stuff.

Question: I have a 21-month-old daughter, and brushing teeth is a constant struggle. Any suggestions for making it an enjoyable experience for her and me? My pediatrician recommended that we let HER "brush" them in the morning and WE do it in the evening (to make sure her teeth are properly cleaned at least once a day, while allowing her some control). Still, she resists. I've tried songs, I've tried offering to count to five to get her to open her mouth, I've tried letting her hold toys. She watches my husband and me brush our teeth, but this is one situation where she is not motivated by imitation. I'd be grateful for some advice! Thank you.
From: Lisa in Wakefield

Lisa, you have probably noticed that at this age, it's hard to get your daughter to do anything you specifically want her to. She's much more interested in experimenting with the new-found power of "No!"

"If I say no, what does mommy say/do? What about this time? What about daddy? OK, what about this time? Wow, that was cool. I'm gonna try that again!"

My suggestion is to back off. Leave the toothbrush available to her, but tell her, "When you want to brush your teeth by yourself, here's your toothbrush. If you want us to help you, we can do that, too." Then stop offering, stop talking about it, don't insist upon it but do keep modeling for her. Nothing awful is going to happen to her teeth in the interim.

But I would also do this: Some time when she's in the bathroom with you, I'd mutter aloud, "Ooops I almost forgot to brush my teeth. It's so important to take good care of my teeth!" Another time, "Boy, my mouth feels good after I brush!" Don't direct these comments to her, just to the world at large. To the mirror.

Before you know it, she'll be wanting to brush, too. OK, maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Be patient.


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9 comments so far...
  1. What worked wonders for me was letting my kids choose their own toothbrush. There are such a wide variety available - favorite characters,flashing lights, playing music, electric or not - my kids were thrilled to brush with Cinderella or a Power Ranger. You also might consider if she doesn't like the toothpaste - my kids are really picky about which toothpastes they like, and really strongly dislike some toothpastes.

    I completely disagree that you should walk away. It is extremely important to take good care of baby teeth for many reasons, including collateral damage to the permanent teeth. If letting her choose a brush doesn't do the trick, calmly and matter-of-factly explain that taking care of her teeth is not a choice. It is her choice whether she does it or you do it, what toothbrush, what flavor toothpaste (or just water, if you need to for a little while), etc. When she chooses not to cooperate, stay calm but firm, and remind her that it's her choice to cooperate or not, and it would be much more pleasant for her if she cooperates. When she cooperates, give her some praise. Has she been to the dentist yet?
    We always did an "inspection" with the brush after the kids were done brushing. For some reason, they really liked that. Good luck!!

    Posted by akmom June 2, 09 09:35 AM
  1. I also disagree that you should walk away. Isn't the child just going to think that her protest worked? She's only 21-mos...is she even going to fall for this suggested reverse psychology? Plus, it doesn't sound very good for her oral hygiene after very long.
    My daughter is 19 months and my way of gaining her cooperation with brushing her teeth is that I have a small tube of baby toothpaste that has Elmo on it and I tell her that it's time to go brush our teeth with Elmo! I assist her in putting the toothpaste on the brush and help her to rinse afterwards. She gets a big kick out of trying to spit in the sink. I think if you make it fun, the child will accept it more. It sounds like distractions like toys and songs are not going to work. It's probably just annoying to the child and those tactics are usually saved for something that is unpleasant, like getting a shot in the arm. Make it fun and empower, that's all.

    Posted by BosMomE June 2, 09 11:04 AM
  1. I also disagree that walking away is the solution. To me, brushing teeth is non-negotiable, just like taking medicine. There are few things in our house that I feel that way about, but this is certainly one of them. Most pediatric dentists and pediatricians strongly urge brushing twice a day, and cavities in young children are all too common. I am scared straight to follow this advice because the thought of having to take her to have a cavity filled is far worse than the daily chore of brushing teeth. Kids usually keep their baby teeth until they are 6 to 8 years old, so it is important to take care of them with brushing. (In fact, our pediatric dentist told us that we should also start trying to floss our 21 month old daughter's teeth--yeah right! We'll stick with brushing for now.)

    What has worked for us is 1) always giving her the "choice" to use the pink toothbrush or the green one (makes her feel like she has some power in the situation, and isn't that usually the battle at this age?); 2) using a stool or holding her so she can watch herself in the mirror; 3) letting her brush by herself for the first minute, then one of us "helps" with the rest and 4) using Tom's of Maine Silly Strawberry fluoride free toothpaste for kids. Some days are more challenging than others, but so long as the overall habit of toothbrushing is taking place, I can live with that.

    Posted by Sleepymama June 2, 09 11:44 AM
  1. Mr. Handy makes an appearance at tooth brush time. My hand becomes a puppet who sneezes, coughs, and generally creates a lot of silliness. Mr. Handy is allowed to brush my son's teeth anytime. Sometimes its about removing the power struggle.

    Alternatively, I let my son brush his teeth by himself and then take turns.

    Posted by Jim June 2, 09 12:23 PM
  1. Our 2.5 y.o. son is also resistant to brushing his teeth, but we insist, and we use bribery. The way we try to give him power and control is this: he can cooperate, or he can not cooperate (basically, we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way, but we are gonna do it). We use a cooperation reward chart with about 6-8 empty squares: each time he cooperates he gets a sticker, and when he finishes the chart he gets a present of his choice (within reason). When he is interested in cooperating, it means he gets to pick a little gift every few days. When he is not interested, we remind him a few times that he isn't going to get a sticker if he doesn't decide to cooperate (and he will still have to brush his teeth, but the hard way). Mostly it works, but it is a twice daily struggle.

    Posted by Chase June 2, 09 01:48 PM
  1. You could set up a sticker chart and give her stickers for when she brushes her teeth, and/or you could "gossip" brushing her teeth to your husband when she does it. We also were very successful with a checklist.

    See "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" for some more ideas, they worked well with my daughter.

    Posted by J June 2, 09 02:05 PM
  1. You might try an electric toothbrush. When she won't open her mouth, try tickling her with the electric toothbrush under the chin. This worked like a charm for my younger daughter. And since kids don't get smelly armpits, if yours isn't ticklish under the chin, try the armpit. If you don't get full-on belly laughs (with an open mouth ready for short periods of brushing), I'll eat my hat. Also, try one toothbrush for you, one for her. It gets crowded with two toothbrushes, but eventually you'll get all the teeth clean.

    Posted by Go-for-the-giggles Mom of 2 June 2, 09 11:32 PM
  1. I have a 4 year old who has had 3 cavities filled last year because she, too, did not like to have her teeth brushed and we didn't push much. After that experience, we made sure to brush and floss regularly and she is more cooperative now. I would not just let it go--trust me, this is like car seats--it is non-negotiable--and you will be glad to not go through with fillings for a 2 or 3 year old.

    Posted by momof3 June 3, 09 10:24 AM
  1. I am a dental assistant at a pediatric dental office and not only is the advice to leave it up to a 2 year old absurd it is also neglectful, and yes bad things can happen. It only takes 24 hours to re accumulate the amount of bacteria in ones mouth to cause a cavity.
    My advice is restraining your child and brush there teeth. You are not hurting them and you are getting the job done, they grow out of the tantrums. PROMISE! If you do not then you will see a strong willed 2 year old pitching to get a filling that can lead to sedation or even general anesthetic in some cases. Try finding a pediatric dentist near you for her first check up. They can make tooth brushing fun. Your daughter will learn to love it. Trust me and DON"T just give the 2 year old the control. You wouldn't let her wash her own hair would you? Well it doesn't hurt to get a hair cut. But it can be traumatic to get a filling.
    Amanda

    Posted by Amanda H. July 9, 09 09:19 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. What worked wonders for me was letting my kids choose their own toothbrush. There are such a wide variety available - favorite characters,flashing lights, playing music, electric or not - my kids were thrilled to brush with Cinderella or a Power Ranger. You also might consider if she doesn't like the toothpaste - my kids are really picky about which toothpastes they like, and really strongly dislike some toothpastes.

    I completely disagree that you should walk away. It is extremely important to take good care of baby teeth for many reasons, including collateral damage to the permanent teeth. If letting her choose a brush doesn't do the trick, calmly and matter-of-factly explain that taking care of her teeth is not a choice. It is her choice whether she does it or you do it, what toothbrush, what flavor toothpaste (or just water, if you need to for a little while), etc. When she chooses not to cooperate, stay calm but firm, and remind her that it's her choice to cooperate or not, and it would be much more pleasant for her if she cooperates. When she cooperates, give her some praise. Has she been to the dentist yet?
    We always did an "inspection" with the brush after the kids were done brushing. For some reason, they really liked that. Good luck!!

    Posted by akmom June 2, 09 09:35 AM
  1. I also disagree that you should walk away. Isn't the child just going to think that her protest worked? She's only 21-mos...is she even going to fall for this suggested reverse psychology? Plus, it doesn't sound very good for her oral hygiene after very long.
    My daughter is 19 months and my way of gaining her cooperation with brushing her teeth is that I have a small tube of baby toothpaste that has Elmo on it and I tell her that it's time to go brush our teeth with Elmo! I assist her in putting the toothpaste on the brush and help her to rinse afterwards. She gets a big kick out of trying to spit in the sink. I think if you make it fun, the child will accept it more. It sounds like distractions like toys and songs are not going to work. It's probably just annoying to the child and those tactics are usually saved for something that is unpleasant, like getting a shot in the arm. Make it fun and empower, that's all.

    Posted by BosMomE June 2, 09 11:04 AM
  1. I also disagree that walking away is the solution. To me, brushing teeth is non-negotiable, just like taking medicine. There are few things in our house that I feel that way about, but this is certainly one of them. Most pediatric dentists and pediatricians strongly urge brushing twice a day, and cavities in young children are all too common. I am scared straight to follow this advice because the thought of having to take her to have a cavity filled is far worse than the daily chore of brushing teeth. Kids usually keep their baby teeth until they are 6 to 8 years old, so it is important to take care of them with brushing. (In fact, our pediatric dentist told us that we should also start trying to floss our 21 month old daughter's teeth--yeah right! We'll stick with brushing for now.)

    What has worked for us is 1) always giving her the "choice" to use the pink toothbrush or the green one (makes her feel like she has some power in the situation, and isn't that usually the battle at this age?); 2) using a stool or holding her so she can watch herself in the mirror; 3) letting her brush by herself for the first minute, then one of us "helps" with the rest and 4) using Tom's of Maine Silly Strawberry fluoride free toothpaste for kids. Some days are more challenging than others, but so long as the overall habit of toothbrushing is taking place, I can live with that.

    Posted by Sleepymama June 2, 09 11:44 AM
  1. Mr. Handy makes an appearance at tooth brush time. My hand becomes a puppet who sneezes, coughs, and generally creates a lot of silliness. Mr. Handy is allowed to brush my son's teeth anytime. Sometimes its about removing the power struggle.

    Alternatively, I let my son brush his teeth by himself and then take turns.

    Posted by Jim June 2, 09 12:23 PM
  1. Our 2.5 y.o. son is also resistant to brushing his teeth, but we insist, and we use bribery. The way we try to give him power and control is this: he can cooperate, or he can not cooperate (basically, we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way, but we are gonna do it). We use a cooperation reward chart with about 6-8 empty squares: each time he cooperates he gets a sticker, and when he finishes the chart he gets a present of his choice (within reason). When he is interested in cooperating, it means he gets to pick a little gift every few days. When he is not interested, we remind him a few times that he isn't going to get a sticker if he doesn't decide to cooperate (and he will still have to brush his teeth, but the hard way). Mostly it works, but it is a twice daily struggle.

    Posted by Chase June 2, 09 01:48 PM
  1. You could set up a sticker chart and give her stickers for when she brushes her teeth, and/or you could "gossip" brushing her teeth to your husband when she does it. We also were very successful with a checklist.

    See "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" for some more ideas, they worked well with my daughter.

    Posted by J June 2, 09 02:05 PM
  1. You might try an electric toothbrush. When she won't open her mouth, try tickling her with the electric toothbrush under the chin. This worked like a charm for my younger daughter. And since kids don't get smelly armpits, if yours isn't ticklish under the chin, try the armpit. If you don't get full-on belly laughs (with an open mouth ready for short periods of brushing), I'll eat my hat. Also, try one toothbrush for you, one for her. It gets crowded with two toothbrushes, but eventually you'll get all the teeth clean.

    Posted by Go-for-the-giggles Mom of 2 June 2, 09 11:32 PM
  1. I have a 4 year old who has had 3 cavities filled last year because she, too, did not like to have her teeth brushed and we didn't push much. After that experience, we made sure to brush and floss regularly and she is more cooperative now. I would not just let it go--trust me, this is like car seats--it is non-negotiable--and you will be glad to not go through with fillings for a 2 or 3 year old.

    Posted by momof3 June 3, 09 10:24 AM
  1. I am a dental assistant at a pediatric dental office and not only is the advice to leave it up to a 2 year old absurd it is also neglectful, and yes bad things can happen. It only takes 24 hours to re accumulate the amount of bacteria in ones mouth to cause a cavity.
    My advice is restraining your child and brush there teeth. You are not hurting them and you are getting the job done, they grow out of the tantrums. PROMISE! If you do not then you will see a strong willed 2 year old pitching to get a filling that can lead to sedation or even general anesthetic in some cases. Try finding a pediatric dentist near you for her first check up. They can make tooth brushing fun. Your daughter will learn to love it. Trust me and DON"T just give the 2 year old the control. You wouldn't let her wash her own hair would you? Well it doesn't hurt to get a hair cut. But it can be traumatic to get a filling.
    Amanda

    Posted by Amanda H. July 9, 09 09:19 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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