Q&A: brushing toddler teeth

Meghann writes:

"My daughter is 20 months old now and has her full set of
teeth, except for her 2nd year molars.  When she was smaller I
would wipe her teeth with a washcloth to keep them clean.  Since she
turned 1, I have been attempting to use a toothbrush.  This never went
very well, but I thought as time went on she would get used to it and it would
be ok.  However, it is getting worse.  At this point, she won’t
let me brush her teeth, she clamps her mouth shut when I am holding the
toothbrush.  I don’t want to resort to using force, as this will
make it even more unpleasant for both of us and probably make her not want to
do it even more.  When she is holding the toothbrush she will put it in
her mouth and chew on it, but she doesn’t really move it around and brush
her teeth.  I try to put my hand over hers and help her, this helps a
little bit, but still she’s not really brushing all her teeth.  As
time goes on, I am getting more and more worried because I am fearful her teeth
will become decayed.  This brings up many images in my head of her being
the outcast at school with rotten teeth (yes, a bit dramatic, but you know what
I mean).  Has anyone else had a similar problem?  Any suggestions??"

There is no magic toothbrushing trick. Just a bunch of things you can try and hope that one or more of them work.

It’s clearly about control*, so you want to make her feel like it’s her idea, or make it so much fun that she wants to do it.

Here’s what I’ve got:

Get a fun toothbrush. Kids love cool toothbrushes, and kids love electric toothbrushes. Especially toothbrushes with Dora, Bob the Builder, Cookie Monster, a race car, or a Lego rocket with an actual Lego astronaut inside the clear capsule. Take your child to the store and let her pick out the toothbrush she wants to use.

Get fun toothpaste. Tom’s of Maine makes really yummy clear liquid toothpaste (with Xylitol**, even). One of the national brands (Crest? Colgate?) has toothpaste with sparkles. A cool yummy toothpaste will make the experience more fun, too.

Make it a game. Do the airplane-going-into-the-hanger thing, or pretend she’s a lion with big sharp teeth that need to be cleaned (she can roar while you’re brushing). Whatever will get her to forget that you’re brushing her teeth and laugh and have fun will make it go more easily.

See if she’ll do it more easily with your partner. Sometimes kids won’t do something with one parent but will do it easily with the other. Sometimes they switch back and forth between which parent they’ll allow to help them.

What’s working for everyone else?

* I get a bunch of questions about 20-month-olds. It’s a tough age, apparently. Most of those questions are about getting 20-month-olds to eat. So keeping their mouths tightly shut may be the 20-month-old control technique of choice.

** Xylitol is a sugar from birch trees, and it kills the bacteria that causes tooth decay. The children of mothers who use xylitol toothpaste and/or gum in the first two years of their children’s lives have fewer dental problems up through age five than kids whose moms don’t use any xylitol products. But even if you don’t use xylitol toothpaste your kids can. If your baby is too young for toothpaste, you can get Spiffies xylitol wipes to wipe their little baby teeth.

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