So you made it through the first few months of child rearing and you think you have it down. Then that first little tooth appears with gobs of saliva flowing everywhere. “Now what?” you ask. How do you keep that little pearl of tooth clean and happy?
The rule of thumb is that you are supposed to brush your kid’s teeth until the age of 7. Yep, you’re on the hook for seven years.
It may not be a pleasurable experience – the kid doesn’t like it and resists, the child is uncomfortable, toothpaste gets everywhere, and it’s not any fun for the parents either. And you barely have enough time to brush your own teeth – let alone someone else’s.
So, what is the best approach?
Playing hardball can result in resentment and even dental phobia later on in life, which is still quite common (over 50% of the population seeks dental care only when they are in pain, which is horrible from a preventive model standpoint).
There’s a cost benefit to teaching your child to be preventive in maintaining his oral health.
The first thing a parent can do before they try to brush the kid’s teeth, is, whenever they brush their teeth, brush in front of the child. It’s a subliminal message that you send to your kid that it’s something you do every day – you have to be the role model.
Tap dance, crack jokes, do whatever it takes to convince your child that this is a normal and fun daily routine.
Do this even as the child gets older – it is critical that the child gets this subliminal message from you so that it becomes a habit in adulthood.
Teaching your kid to brush properly is in the same category as putting sunblock on your child or teaching your child to wear a seat belt or look both ways before crossing a road – it is critical!
In the end, they will do what you did during those formative years. Brush and floss in front of and with your kids! Your own oral health will get a great boost at the same time!
Here’s how to make brushing your child’s teeth a pleasurable experience as well as a habit your child takes into adulthood.
Expand the arena.
Do not limit brushing to the bathroom! Brush on the beach after a family picnic. Brush in the car after snacks. They will learn by your example – they will follow your lead. Don’t limit their experiences of brushing at an early age.
Make Toothpaste Optional.
Don’t let toothpaste limit when and where you brush. Toothpaste can make kids want to gag or need to spit, and can make things unnecessarily messy, which makes brushing a chore.
I’ve found that toothpaste will make parents less likely to brush their kids’ teeth because it just means they have to go into the bathroom with a bottle of Windex to wipe down the sink afterwards.
Get in front of the mirror.
I guarantee you will not be successful if you set your child on the toilet and go at your kid with a toothbrush. Instead, have your child looking in the mirror while you stand behind her and brush her teeth (or assist her, depending on the age) while you both look into the mirror.
Sitting on the toilet is for other activities. Don’t associate it with cleaning your teeth!
Stay away from the gauze.
Depending on your child’s age, you may have read in all the baby books that you should use gauze to rub or wipe your baby’s new teeth. This is a waste of time. It confuses the child, it’s not effective, tastes terrible (cotton mouth, yuck!) and this method wastes precious time to teach your child the proper way to brush. Get them used to it before they have the chance to form an opinion about what’s best.
Make it a priority.
You’re trying to fit teeth brushing into a busy schedule, but your child interprets this to mean that brushing your teeth is an afterthought and something to do as quickly as possible. Now is the time to send the message to your kids that their oral health is a priority.
Make it a family activity.
Just as dinner is a family activity, you can make brushing a time when the family gathers in the bathroom to brush after a meal. This is great when your child is just starting to brush their first tooth at around age one.
Have one parent brush the other parent’s teeth. Let your kid brush your teeth! (good luck and make sure you don’t grimace!) Have your kid brush the dog’s teeth (wash hands thoroughly afterwards).
Keep it positive.
The worst thing you can do is threaten your child with brushing. Don’t tell your child that if she doesn’t brush, she’ll have to go see the dentist as if it’s some big scary punishment for not brushing.
Brushing, as well as visiting the dentist, should both be positive lifelong habits.
I love to use music for this purpose. Get a cheap music player in the bathroom to play your child’s latest favorite song.
The guideline is two minutes for brushing, but at young ages, aim for four to five minutes or longer if your kid is having fun! If you go for four minutes, you’ll be more likely to get your two. Always brush when you’re not in a rush!
Keep things analog.
I recommend an hourglass rather than a digital timer for timing brushing because most kids are very kinesthetic under the age of 7 and an hourglass allows the child to have a tangible concept of how much time is left to brush. An hourglass also can’t be manipulated like a digital timer can.
Mark Burhenne DDS
What are your experiences/tips/tricks brushing your children’s’ teeth? Join the discussion and leave a comment below!