It’s hard to get children to brush properly, especially at an early age. What’s even harder is helping them build a habit that will last a lifetime.
We asked dental professionals, who work closely with Curaden, about their experience in getting children to brush: what are the best techniques and what are the mistakes to avoid?
Let your kid choose a toothbrush and a toothpaste they enjoy
Picking the right aids (like toothbrushes and toothpastes) can be the simplest and most straightforward way to set up a proper long-lasting routine. We talked to Judy Bendit RDH, BS, clinical dental hygienist and educator from the United States. Here is her advice:
“It’s not just kids. Grown-ups skip brushing all the time, because for them it can be unpleasant too. Some toothbrushes can feel uncomfortable in your mouth, so I suggest you take the time to pick a brush with the head size that’s not too big, not too small. Soft and ultrasoft bristles work well.
Some toothpastes can leave an unpleasant aftertaste in your mouth, so just pick a toothpaste that you enjoy. When you genuinely enjoy brushing, you are less likely to skip.
The same goes for children. Let them pick the brush they like but make sure it has a comfortable head size and very soft bristles. Try different toothpastes until your child finds one they enjoy using.
But don’t overlook the paste’s contents. When teeth are just forming, a small amount of fluoride is important. Choose the paste based on how much fluoride it contains and how sensitive your child’s mouth is.
The recommended amount of fluoride in toothpaste for children:
• 6 months to 2 years: 500 ppm
• 2 to 6 years: 1,000 (+) ppm
• 6+ years: 1,450 ppm
How much toothpaste does your child need? For children up to three years old, a rice grain-sized smear is enough. For older children, use a pea-sized amount.
Using an electric toothbrush can be an exciting option if your kids enjoy the way it works and feels. Playing their favourite music can keep them engaged: for example, they have to brush for the whole song. This will encourage brushing for the right amount of time. There are apps that can help motivate too.”
“Parents have to brush twice a day and make sure their children know that this is done in the family. Make it a family event every morning and night.”
However, Judy adds, proper brushes and pastes are not the primary goal:
“Hands down, the best way to get your children to brush is to lead by example. Parents have to brush twice a day and make sure their children know that this is done in the family.
Make it a family event every morning and night. Brush together. We have a saying: ‘A family that brushes together stays healthy together’”.
Logical reasoning vs. games: what works best at an early age
On many parenting sites and forums, you’ll see advice on how to turn brushing into a game, like challenging your children to brush against the clock or going on a quest. How effective are those techniques and do they have any side effects?
“We sometimes assume that small children are as smart and conscious as us grown-ups. But long-term thinking, willpower and discipline are very hard-to-master skills at an early age.”
We talked to Silvia Per, a paediatric dentist and PhD candidate in Bucharest:
“Tactics like games, challenges and ‘let’s do what parents do’ – these work for children who are very small, usually before the age of 3. Children at this age don’t yet have the capacity to adjust their actions for long-term consequences. So yes, before roughly age 3 we need these short-term tactics to establish routines and rituals.
We sometimes assume that small children are as smart and conscious as us grown-ups. But long-term thinking, willpower and discipline are very hard-to-master skills at an early age.
Some parents believe that they can explain to a 2-year-old the need for brushing and oral hygiene. So, they tend to wait for the child to give their consent. But since the child does not give it, and the parents don’t want to put pressure on the child, the teeth are left unbrushed. This is clearly not the way to establish a healthy routine.
“When parents are determined and feel it is important, they will find ways to clean their children’s teeth.”
At such an early age the child barely even understands the need for a regular bath. It takes time and experience to learn such things, so reasoning and negotiating with the child simply won’t work. Not yet.
Also, frankly speaking, parents don’t always consider brushing very important at this age. So the education should be focused on the parent, too. When parents are determined and feel it is important, they will find ways to clean their children’s teeth.”
Eight playful ways to teach your kid to brush teeth well and regularly
1. Favourite songs
Play a song your children enjoy and get them to brush for the entire song. Brush with them at the same time.
2. Find the animal
Pretend you are searching for your child’s favourite animal on their teeth (with a toothbrush). First search on the back of their teeth, then on the front, top and bottom. Find brushing rhymes in your language for more fun.
3. Sugar bugs
Tell a tale of ‘sugar bugs’ that hide in the mouth and need to be cleaned out. Direct your child with the story to go through all teeth.
Tell stories of a toothbrush going through the valleys and mountains looking for adventures and meeting exciting characters along the way. Brush as you tell the story.
5. Favourite toy
Have your child’s favourite toy sit near the mirror where you brush and tell a story of why brushing is important (all while brushing), give brushing directions and congratulate the child on successful brushing. If your child is young enough to believe it’s their toy talking, this strategy works.
6. Let the child brush your teeth first
Invite the child to try to brush your teeth first, like you need help. Then offer to brush your child’s teeth or let them brush themselves.
7. Get it right
Have your child correct you before getting ready to brush. For example, start by brushing your child’s ears, nose or belly. Laugh and enjoy this time with the child, until they offer to brush properly.
8. Compete with a parent
Start brushing together and see who finishes last.
Can games create negative side effects? Avoid these incentives
We asked Silvia about the worst rules and incentives to such games. This is her advice:
“The worst incentive I’ve seen in my career was this: parents based their child’s pocket money on how many times he brushed his teeth, which is basically paying their child to brush.
This is probably the worst way to incentivise brushing, since the child firmly learns that toothbrushing is just a favour to someone else, not something that will make their own health better. I don’t recommend such an approach to anyone: not children, not adults.
The same is true about coming to the dentist. Parents often promise their children rewards when they are on the dental chair.
For example, they promise that after treatment, they’ll buy the child a toy. This is done to make the child understand and accept the treatment, but in 99% of these cases kids leave the chair without the treatment done, no matter the reward.
“Children need to understand from a very early age that taking care of their teeth is about caring for themselves, not about achieving some external benchmark or gaining some resource.”
Usually what does the trick for me is explaining to the child that they came in my office for help, because it’s them who needs a check-up or a filling.
In my experience, children need to understand from a very early age that taking care of their teeth is about caring for themselves, not about achieving some external benchmark or gaining some resource.
As adults we can help them understand in a playful way, by telling stories or playing games.
For example, I tell children a story about bacteria that accumulate on their teeth when they don’t brush, or a story about a tooth that wants to be clean the same way we clean our fingers, toes and face.”
No rush, let your child practice brushing
According to Silvia, parents need to be aware of their child’s learning curve and know when to help them.
“When children start brushing at an early age, they might at first lack the necessary motor skills. They look at their parents and want to brush their teeth like the grown-ups, but they move the brush in one place, struggle with getting the brush to the molars, bite the head or can’t handle the toothpaste. To a parent, this can be mildly annoying, but that is perfectly natural.
“Children need to actually learn and train themselves to brush; it’s not a natural talent that everyone is born with.”
We must understand that the motor skills we take for granted (like precisely moving our hands) are something that a child acquires with time and practice.
Children need to actually learn and train themselves to brush; it’s not a natural talent that everyone is born with. And practising is the only way to achieve mastery.
If you see your child struggling with a brush, don’t rush to correct them. Give them time to practise and learn. And if, after some time, you see that the child is stuck, give help: direct movements or offer to finish brushing with your caring hands. Do not rush, though: proper skill is only learned through practice.”
Should parents finish brushing after their children? (Yes!)
Silvia Per shares her insight:
“I strongly support parents helping to brush their children’s teeth all the way until the children are eight years old.
A small child won’t be able to properly brush and clean out all the germs at an early age – at least, it’s very challenging. I explain to them that at 4 years old their child is unable to follow all the steps to good cleaning.
Here is what I do: I show both the parents and the child the places loaded with plaque. I make them understand that this can be avoided if they do it together, as a team. I present the brushing techniques to both parents and children so the small ones know and practise, but the parents should definitely finish it.”
Checklist: getting your children to brush properly
- For children under 3 years old, use games, apps, challenges and other motivating techniques.
- For older children, rely on self-motivation. Teach children empowerment and self-care ethics.
- As the main motive, use the argument that when we brush, we make ourselves healthier and stronger.
- Avoid stimulating with money, gifts or other external motivation.
- Make sure both you and your child have comfortable toothbrushes and nice-tasting toothpastes (don’t neglect the fluoride ingredient! It is very important for a forming tooth). Pick separate flavours if necessary to make sure the child enjoys brushing.