Brushing a 2-year-old's teeth

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 30, 2010 06:00 AM

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I have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and I have trouble getting her to brush her teeth. I have to brush her teeth at least 3 times a day because she has a cavity in her front tooth. She was doing OK but lately she starts to scream every time I brush her teeth, and she even coughed until she threw up everything she ate. I don't know what to do - have any suggestions?

Thank you.

From: Rasha, Irving, TX

Dear Rasha,

I ran your question past Dr. John R. Liu, President of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Here's what he said:

"The critical piece is that the cavity is most likely the source of the pain and needs immediate attention by a pediatric dentist. [The mother] can brush on a fluoridated toothpaste with a Q-tip or her finger rather than using a brush as a temporary measure but, ultimately, seeing the pediatric dentist as soon as possible is the best thing at this point."

He characterized your question as "urgent." So did I because dental pain is nothing to trifle with and could have a negative effect on your daughter. I'm speaking from personal experience. I was so traumatized by dentistry as a young child (6, 7, 8), that I developed a phobia and stayed away from the dentist for nearly 20 years as an adult which, needless to say, was not good for my teeth. So: there's a reason pediatric dentistry developed as a specialty!

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that every child see a dentist or pediatric dentist by their first birthday. Liu said, "Even though these are only "baby" teeth and will eventually fall out, it is important for good overall health to have good oral health. Starting out with helpful information and guidance from a pediatric dentist and his/her team will ensure that children will grow up with a healthy mouth and enjoy a lifetime of being pain-free and cavity-free." Here are some tips on helping kids who resist brushing.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I read the question differently, in that I assumed the mother had already been to a dentist, and the daughter just didn't like having her teeth brushed.

    Posted by JMB June 30, 10 08:29 AM
  1. I can't speak to the cavity, but here is what worked for us. My 19 month old likes to "brush" his teeth. This means he likes to chew on his toothbrush. We let him pick his toothbrush and toothpaste. He picked Thomas the Train toothpaste, and is excited to see the tube with the Choo-Choo on it. He doesn't like for me to actually brush his teeth (and was throwing temper tantrums and would chuck the tooth brush across the room). My wife made up a tooth brushing song, and that has really helped. We let him "brush" for a little while by himself. Then we sing the song over and over until we finished brushing his teeth. We've been doing this for over a month and each time is a little less of a struggle. He likes the song now, and kind of dances to it. I think he knows now that the song will end and we will stop brushing his teeth, I don't know if he realizes we keep repeating the song until we feel like we have brushed all surfaces.

    Posted by mamma June 30, 10 08:56 AM
  1. I don't really understand why you have to brush her teeth "at least 3 times a day". If she has a cavity now, brushing won't make it go away. There is no reason why a 2.5 yr old should have to brush their teeth more than twice a day. No wonder she screams, every time she turns around you are trying to brush her teeth! And if you are truly trying to brush a cavity, then it must hurt like crazy. Have you even taken her to a dentist?

    Posted by Dad June 30, 10 11:43 AM
  1. An appointment with the dentist might be wise to make sure there is no cavity or other sores that might be causing pain.

    If there is no dental issue, then you can help your child by brushing YOUR teeth with her so you can be an example, as an activity you both do together so she can see it's part of mom's and dad's routine as well. My daughter and I (or dad) usually both set up in front of the mirror and brush our teeth together. She might not do a "great" job but she does it and I finish it off helping her. --We make it a bit playful, make faces, show our teeth and our tongue and look at the things we have to clean inside our mouth and how.

    I also believe (and I read in different places) that it's not necessary to brush her more than twice a day at this point.

    This too shall pass. Be patient and good luck!

    Posted by rmg June 30, 10 02:58 PM
  1. My son is very into rhyming, so I sing a silly song while I brush his teeth, to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat: "Brush, brush, brush your teeth, brush them up and down. If you do not brush your teeth, they will all turn ..." and he yells "Brown!" I sing this a few times with other verses (Brush them front and back/black; all the teeth in your head/red, etc). It distracts him and he loves it. We also let him pick out his own battery-operated toothbrush and toothpaste. Good luck!

    Posted by amy July 2, 10 08:56 AM
  1. Brushing should always be done with SOFT bristles. Dr. Eve Leeman who practises in Cambridge once told me that "she would use a medium bristle brush on dentures".

    The toothpaste may be making the kid gag.

    My mother always bought Crest and I HATED brushing as a kid. When I had earned money as a teenager I bought a tube of Colgate and life suddenly changed for the better. I could enjoy brushing twice a day.

    The flavor or gel vs paste does NOT matter--there is something in the base formula of each brand that still causes that major difference to my gagging or not.

    Posted by oldchild July 4, 10 11:02 AM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I read the question differently, in that I assumed the mother had already been to a dentist, and the daughter just didn't like having her teeth brushed.

    Posted by JMB June 30, 10 08:29 AM
  1. I can't speak to the cavity, but here is what worked for us. My 19 month old likes to "brush" his teeth. This means he likes to chew on his toothbrush. We let him pick his toothbrush and toothpaste. He picked Thomas the Train toothpaste, and is excited to see the tube with the Choo-Choo on it. He doesn't like for me to actually brush his teeth (and was throwing temper tantrums and would chuck the tooth brush across the room). My wife made up a tooth brushing song, and that has really helped. We let him "brush" for a little while by himself. Then we sing the song over and over until we finished brushing his teeth. We've been doing this for over a month and each time is a little less of a struggle. He likes the song now, and kind of dances to it. I think he knows now that the song will end and we will stop brushing his teeth, I don't know if he realizes we keep repeating the song until we feel like we have brushed all surfaces.

    Posted by mamma June 30, 10 08:56 AM
  1. I don't really understand why you have to brush her teeth "at least 3 times a day". If she has a cavity now, brushing won't make it go away. There is no reason why a 2.5 yr old should have to brush their teeth more than twice a day. No wonder she screams, every time she turns around you are trying to brush her teeth! And if you are truly trying to brush a cavity, then it must hurt like crazy. Have you even taken her to a dentist?

    Posted by Dad June 30, 10 11:43 AM
  1. An appointment with the dentist might be wise to make sure there is no cavity or other sores that might be causing pain.

    If there is no dental issue, then you can help your child by brushing YOUR teeth with her so you can be an example, as an activity you both do together so she can see it's part of mom's and dad's routine as well. My daughter and I (or dad) usually both set up in front of the mirror and brush our teeth together. She might not do a "great" job but she does it and I finish it off helping her. --We make it a bit playful, make faces, show our teeth and our tongue and look at the things we have to clean inside our mouth and how.

    I also believe (and I read in different places) that it's not necessary to brush her more than twice a day at this point.

    This too shall pass. Be patient and good luck!

    Posted by rmg June 30, 10 02:58 PM
  1. My son is very into rhyming, so I sing a silly song while I brush his teeth, to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat: "Brush, brush, brush your teeth, brush them up and down. If you do not brush your teeth, they will all turn ..." and he yells "Brown!" I sing this a few times with other verses (Brush them front and back/black; all the teeth in your head/red, etc). It distracts him and he loves it. We also let him pick out his own battery-operated toothbrush and toothpaste. Good luck!

    Posted by amy July 2, 10 08:56 AM
  1. Brushing should always be done with SOFT bristles. Dr. Eve Leeman who practises in Cambridge once told me that "she would use a medium bristle brush on dentures".

    The toothpaste may be making the kid gag.

    My mother always bought Crest and I HATED brushing as a kid. When I had earned money as a teenager I bought a tube of Colgate and life suddenly changed for the better. I could enjoy brushing twice a day.

    The flavor or gel vs paste does NOT matter--there is something in the base formula of each brand that still causes that major difference to my gagging or not.

    Posted by oldchild July 4, 10 11:02 AM
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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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