Getting kids into the habit of brushing and flossing isn’t easy, but it’s perhaps one of the most important habits you instill in your child as a parent — up there with always using a seat belt and always wearing sunblock.
As a father of three girls myself (all grown up now, and all still cavity-free!) I’ve definitely experienced the battle before bedtime to get teeth brushed and flossed and everyone into bed at a reasonable time.
There are some tricks that will definitely make it easier to instill this habit in your children, but there’s one phrase that always seems to really stick with kids.
The tooth bug is pooping in your mouth.
Yup, nothing like a little potty humor to get kids excited about brushing, flossing, and tongue scraping!
It’s true: after a meal, especially a sugary one, the bacteria in your mouth have a feast, which allows them to multiply.
For children too young to understand what bacteria are, I like to invoke “The Tooth Bug” — a bad guy that leaves a mess but who your child can overcome with good brushing and flossing.
Just like humans, after bacteria have a meal, they have to “go to the bathroom” afterwards — and this “poop” is the acidic stuff that causes bad breath and tooth decay.
Have you ever noticed how saltine crackers or Goldfish become sticky in your mouth as you’re chewing them? The tooth bug loves that stickiness between your teeth so he can feast for even longer!
This fact really impresses my pediatric patients and I encourage you to explain it this way to your children as well.
Also, tell your child:
Run your tongue over your teeth.
Ask your child what he feels when he does this.
Does it feel sticky? Rough?
Getting children used to being in tune with how their mouth feels can help with the habit.
People didn’t always know to brush their teeth at least twice a day. The reason you and I brush our teeth twice a day is actually thanks to a 1950s TV ad that told people, “Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film. Why would you keep a dingy film on your teeth? Our toothpaste removes the film!”
This advertisement was able to successfully change America’s brushing habits forever because running your tongue over your teeth and feeling the film invokes a craving along with a clearly defined reward.
Feeling the film on your teeth and knowing that brushing will remove the film is a craving with a clearly defined reward — which, according to habits author Charles Duhigg is critical for forming habits.
By asking your child to run their tongue over her teeth, you create simple and obvious cue — removing the bacteria’s “poop” or making your teeth feel smooth and clean — which will activate the part of their brain that makes it a habit.
Remember these two things that will really motivate your child when you’re not there and they’re on their own:
1. Make sure they can differentiate between a fuzzy and a slippery tooth surface.
2. Make sure they know that the fuzzy tooth surface lets tooth bugs poop in their mouths.
Ideally, your child can identify this fuzzy film themselves. Don’t just tell them about it — make sure they can feel when their teeth are fuzzy or slippery themselves. This is the thing that will make the difference and cement the habit.
If your child can differentiate between slippery teeth and fuzzy teeth, they’ll be able to check in at school or at a sleepover and know to brush their teeth.
Being told to do something doesn’t work, but feeling it does.
Mark Burhenne DDSread next: The Best Electric Toothbrush for Kids