How did you get a recalcitrant toddler's teeth brushed?
November 3, 2008 8:49 AM   Subscribe

How did you get a recalcitrant toddler's teeth brushed?

He's 19 months. He's teething, but has a whole bunch of teeth already. He clamps his mouth shut, writhes and shouts NO NO NO NO! when we brush his teeth. It's the worst part of bedtime and I dread it. I've tried all the advice in What to Expect: The Toddler Years or whatever it's called, and it's all "make brushing fun! compliment him on how well he brushes his teeth!" whereas in our house there is little to compliment. He has his own electric toothbrush that looks like a crayon, as well as his own manual toothbrush. He will happily suck toddler toothpaste off them, which can be a brief entree into the mouth for his crafty parents, but not long enough. It's getting to the point where getting his teeth brushed takes two parents and force verging on the violent. Has anyone dealt with this situation? We've exhausted the advice of the doctor and the dentist and the aforementioned book.
posted by chesty_a_arthur to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I also have a 19 month old and it's a challenge to brush his teeth. I don't think you can expect too much at this point, it's doubtful anything you can do at this point will allow for more than a few seconds of brushing on each side. One thing you might try is just brushing his tongue. That interests my toddler for long enough to get a few swipes on the upper and lower teeth. Be careful about brushing too hard or too much as it can damage their gums.
posted by mattbucher at 8:57 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Yup, have a similar challenge.

I've had limited success in encouraging my son to brush his teeth while I brush my teeth. That helps some. He will at least attempt to mimic me when I brush.
posted by PsuDab93 at 9:05 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: We use brute force, or the threat of it ("If you won't brush your teeth, Mama is going to brush them for you."). We had to do the same thing with the older brother when he was that age.

My day is all about picking my battles and -- because weak enamel runs in the family -- this is one battle I pick.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:09 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: A couple of things that have worked along the way for us (he's almost 3 now):

1. To get the top of the upper front teeth, which is a common cavity area for kids, we tell him to "say GRRRR like a tiger!" Get all the front surfaces you can while he's exposing those teeth.

2. We tell him we see carrots and broccoli growing in his teeth - "you're growing a broccoli forest! Let's clean it out!" Dorky, but he loves it.

3. I sit on the toilet seat, and have him sit on his stool with his back to me. He leans his head back onto my leg and I can really get in there and brush. It seems to relax him a lot.

4. Let him spit A LOT. Like, every 3 seconds if he needs to. It freaks my kid out to have toothpaste or extra spit in his mouth; it chokes him.

5. You could try using floss as a "reward." The gaps in his teeth don't necessitate flossing right now, but when we have a good brushing session, I floss my son's teeth and then let him floss his own teeth (watch like a hawk for attempts to eat the floss!). He's just intrigued by it for some reason.
posted by peep at 9:10 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Speaking as a recent toddler parent I agree with the above. I would suggest maybe starting small, and make it fast and fun (maybe make funny faces while you're trying to get the toothbrush in) so he sees it's not so bad, then each time make it go a little longer. Another alternative is to change the environment and maybe try to do some of it at his bedside so it's not so clinical.
posted by crapmatic at 9:10 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: I would give it a rest for a little while and perhaps after he sucks the toddler toothpaste off of the toothbrushes, let him chew on them for a while if he wants. Toddler tooth-brushing is woefully deficient, but probably better than nothing.

When you do get in his mouth to brush, be very gentle and stand behind him. You won't get more than a few moments, so just do what you can, and then let it go and give him a lot of praise. Clap, dance, say YAY, maybe it's time for his favorite toy or CD or whatever right after brushing time.

You can encourage him to rinse his mouth out with water after he eats or drinks, that will help immensely.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:11 AM on November 3, 2008

P.S. "you're growing a broccoli forest! Let's clean it out!" Dorky, but he loves it." YES -- I remember we did this too. I'd make up random foods and go "is there a carrot in there!?" and he'd laugh. So yeah, make it fun.
posted by crapmatic at 9:12 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Does he hate going to bed? It could just be that he's fighting going to bed, and brushing his teeth is an easy place for him to make a stand.

You might try brushing right after dinner, rather than waiting for bedtime.

Also, there are some cool staining products on the market, like hector inspector.
posted by tfinniga at 9:14 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Put him in a semi headlock and just do it. If he cries all the better. While he is screaming you can get in there. My youngest sometimes hated having his teeth brushed. I would softly say, "ooh, I'm getting all the buggies out." and other funny things and most of the time he would calm down. Praise him like mad after each brushing.
posted by Fairchild at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2008

Tell them they will never be able to eat anything sweet again. Also, warn them that their teeth will fall out if they don't look after them. I know that technically, these teeth will fall out anyway, but it works on our two.
posted by MrMustard at 9:20 AM on November 3, 2008

When she was a toddler, I took my older daughter's toothbrush and used it to brush my own teeth for a few seconds. She watched me do that, saw it didn't hurt, and never again gave me a bit of trouble about brushing her teeth.
posted by shallowcenter at 9:37 AM on November 3, 2008

I do "big EEEE" and "big AAAH" to get my daughter to open her mouth...and after we brush her teeth, she gets the treat (at least to her) of getting to take her fluoride or her vitamin...
posted by leahwrenn at 9:44 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: We have the exact same problem. I wrap him up tight in a towel and just go for it while he screams. He yells like I'm killing him but there are never any tears so I think it is all for show. I hope I'm not scarring him for life, at least he'll have good teeth.
posted by pearlybob at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Things that have worked for us:

"Teaching" her about sugar bugs. We have to go get them out before they eat up all our teeth. This has developed into different forms. Right now, there is a family of sugar bugs. We have to brush until we get out the mama,the daddy, the little sister, the aunt, and for some reason ( ;) ) the Opa sugar bug likes to golf, so he's sneaky and jumps all over, making mom have to chase him with the toothbrush. We sometimes count all the sugar bugs we find too.

Making moster sounds, animal noises, finding things we had for supper, etc. all have worked at some point or another.

Letting her brush mom's teeth while mom brushes her teeth. This is messy (and hurts occasionally) but usually works.

Taking turns is big. Each of us gets a toothbrush and we alternate or I get to do teeth and she does tongue.

We have had to go back to a damp facecloth (like for a new baby) from time to time and simply force the issue. This is a battle that is worth fighting, in my opinion.
posted by Abbril at 9:50 AM on November 3, 2008

I'd let my toddlers brush their own teeth, then I'd "check to see if they got all the sugar bugs".
posted by padraigin at 9:55 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: My son is 28 months now and I thought he would never, ever brush his teeth -- but now he asks to do it.

Our trick was to just stop trying to make him do it. Instead, right after supper, his dad and I would pick him up and head into the bathroom ... and we would brush OUR teeth. Didn't make a move toward him, or make him do anything but be in the room with us (which wasn't a problem). After the first two days he was really interested and wanted to do it too, but we kept telling him no, no, you're not old enough yet. After a couple more days we gave him a toothbrush to play with, but no toothpaste (but he could see we were putting something on our brushes). Then finally he was "old enough" and could have his own brush. He's not a great brusher, but we get the brush in his mouth and usually I can get it on both sides.

But we still brush together, as a family, right after dinner instead of right before bed. (And now we've added right after we get up, too.) Family toothbrush time is fun!
posted by anastasiav at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2008 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I let my toddler brush my teeth sometimes, and then I get to brush hers. There are a lot of tricks I employ, sometimes I'll go through three or four of them before I find the one that will work tonight:

Let's brush metal style! Show me your metal face! Yeah! That's hardcore! Now brush your teeth hardcore too! She'll spend about five seconds on each tooth while headbanging horizontally.

Upside down time! Mom's going to hold your legs and I'm going to brush those teeth in the back! Ahh! I see them!

Lately she's been doing it on her own. This is a phase. It'll pass. Try as hard as possible to make it fun. I make a complete fool out of myself finding different brushing styles to teach her (metal style, pogo style, twist and shout style, screamy style, ninja style).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:59 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was little, my dad had a game where he would alternately pretend to be two dentists. Alan, the good dentist (this was the name of our actual dentist) brushed your teeth properly. But Brian, the mad dentist, would brush toothpaste all over your nose, try to stick the toothbrush handle in your ear, and perform other hilarious antics. The two dentists would swap over at random - just when Alan was calmly brushing your teeth, Brian would come along and go crazy spreading toothpaste everywhere. It was silly and messy and I loved it. It also later became a way to teach me how to brush my own teeth the 'right' way, because I had to show 'Brian' how it was supposed to be done.
posted by Acheman at 10:57 AM on November 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

My mom tried no end of cutesy stuff, but we weren't having it. I have distinct memories of my parents holding my brother down so he wouldn't flail while they brushed his teeth.
It worked.

I haven't brought this one up around his girlfriend yet.
posted by dunkadunc at 11:21 AM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Proud owner/parent of 22-month-old who used to not like her teeth brushed, but is getting better about it. What we've learned and used:

1. Let your child pick out the toothbrush purchase.
2. Brush the lovey's "teeth" - be it a doll, stuffed dog, etc. Praise the lovey, and see if your child wants to try.
3. We let our daughter hold our hands or the toothbrush while her mom and I brush our own teeth and we heap on praise for helping.
4. And yes, there's been times when mom holds her down, puffs out her cheeks, and I made quick work.
5. It's corny, but Toddler Writer loves when I sing "Brusha Brusha Brusha" from Grease. It's all in the distraction, sometimes.
posted by fijiwriter at 11:58 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm with the brute force method, if needed. Our 2 year old usually does a bit himself and happily submits to a cleanup by me at the end on the uppers and lowers, but sometimes nothing works like a headlock.
posted by mtstover at 12:34 PM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Brute force is a short-term fix at best. But it does work. My advice there is for you to sit on your butt, put the kid flat on his back, spread-eagled with his arms under your legs, so you have access to his head, upside down as you lean over him. Then, put the blunt end of a second toothbrush between his teeth so he can't fully bite down. This also works for giving medicine to recalcitrant toddlers.

But the real answer is ...

He clamps his mouth shut, writhes and shouts NO NO NO NO! when we brush his teeth.

... that this isn't hating brushing your teeth, but a bigger behavioral issue you need to tackle. It's likely that the "no no no" shouting is a learned response he pulls off at other times, too. And he's learned that screaming "no no no" is the price he has to pay in order to change your behavior, either in giving him what he wants or merely changing the form of how something will be done.

In the end, this is a control issue. If you solve the control issues for other things, teeth brushing will become easier, too.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:49 PM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I let her brush my teeth, and brushed her huggies' teeth as well.

We also have an elaborate narrative about SUPER-TOOTHBRUSH, who comes in to save the day and crushes and destroys all the enemy germs, who give helpless screams of terror when she spits them down the drain.

You've got a lot of great ideas here, but I respectfully disagree with the brute force advocates. Save that for getting shots or something else you really CAN'T slowly get the kid used to over time.
posted by jfwlucy at 1:17 PM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: I sing silly songs and also talk about the other kid in the mirror and ask them what the other kid is up to. Also occasionally pretend I've got confused and I want to brush their ears - just about anything in fact to make it a bit of a laugh.

Another thing is if you let them brush your teeth once you've finished theirs. They love that - particularly if you 'mis-behave' in the same way they do ... I think this is a form of teaching better behaviour ... but I wouldn't bet on it !
posted by southof40 at 2:53 PM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Great, great question. I've been struggling with my son who is a bit younger at 14 months old. He won't let me get the brush anywhere near his mouth, so I let him play with the brush (to get used to it) and I use a damp face washer wrapped over my finger which I then encourage him to bite... he loves this game, and will happily bite my finger wrapped in the cloth, and I do a quick wiggle and rub while it's in there to try and clean at least the surfaces of the four teeth he has. I do a high pitched silly scream thing, as though his bite is the bite of a lion, and he laughs hysterically. I make an effort to let him see me brushing my teeth. I think I'm just going to have to work towards getting him to brush incrementally, and in the meantime give him water to drink last, like our family doctor suggested.

Oh, and absolutely no bottles of milk or drinks in bed as he goes off to sleep. That's dental caries inevitability right there.
posted by lottie at 3:01 PM on November 3, 2008

I don't have kids so I have no real advice, but this one did show up in my RSS feed list tonight.
posted by tcv at 7:54 PM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: We do it in ToddlerTaff's bath, with bath water. The toothbrush is now a bath toy. A friend of mine told me to tell ToddlerTaff that her teeth were being tickled..... didn't really work.

The trick is to use lots and lots of water. ToddlerTaff loves to suck the water from the toothbrush so we dip it in the bath (or a nice cold cup of tap water if we happen to have shampoo or bath liquid in the bath) and give a half second scrub then back in the water and another half second scrub and then back in the water... you get the idea.

It really has to be very very very quick, each scrub,(literally one tooth surface at a time) and ToddlerTaff has to be in control and allowed to suck the water... otherwise we get exactly the reaction you get.

Best of luck, it's a terrible battle.
posted by taff at 1:05 AM on November 4, 2008

Response by poster: coolpapabell: this isn't hating brushing your teeth, but a bigger behavioral issue you need to tackle. It's likely that the "no no no" shouting is a learned response he pulls off at other times, too. And he's learned that screaming "no no no" is the price he has to pay in order to change your behavior, either in giving him what he wants or merely changing the form of how something will be done.
That's probably true in many cases, but in our case, this is pretty much the only thing he "no no no"s about, and it has only changed our behavior in the sense of the grim faces we wind up making. (It's certainly better than the jaw-clamping, because you can get the brush in there while he's shouting.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:19 AM on November 4, 2008

Response by poster: Also wanted to add: not sure which approaches we'll wind up taking, but I appreciate the many thoughtful answers.

Wanted to add to the above -- coolpapabell, it definitely is a control issue, since he is a toddler, and everything is! Fortunately the Brushing Refusal League membership is pretty isolated; normally we can get him to eat/pick up/etc what he needs to.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:24 AM on November 4, 2008

A former co-worker of mine - let's call her Alice - had this conversation with her parents as a kid...

Mom: Do you know what happens to food after you eat it?
Alice: It turns into poop!
Mom: So what happens to those little bits of food that are left stuck in your teeth?
Alice: It... they... I have poop in my mouth?

According to Alice, this was cruel and the gross associations stopped her enjoying meals properly for ages. On the other hand, twenty years on she was still really anal about dental hygiene.

If you'll pardon the pun
posted by the latin mouse at 10:03 AM on November 4, 2008

Best answer: Use damp cloth for awhile? It might be less scary than a toothbrush, and is easier to clean teeth with from an outside perspective.

If it works, you could use it in combination with above methods, eg once they're grown-up enough, they get to use a toothbrush.

Also - learning by example as mentioned above.
But *not* from an adult (they know there's plenty of stuff they can't, or don't have to do that an adult does), but see if you can get some other toddler, preferably a little younger, to demonstrate how they brush their teeth, then heap them with praise.
posted by Elysum at 4:18 PM on November 4, 2008

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