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Toddler Toothbrushing Wars, Continued

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

You answered my last question about toddlers and TV with lots of great ideas I hadn’t thought of, so I’m hoping you might be able to tackle this one too.

My just turned two year old HATES having his teeth brushed. Clenches his lips closed, blocks with his tongue, kicks, flails, you name it. We have tried all the obvious (to me) suggestions: letting him choose his own new! cool! toothbrush, having him watch us brush our teeth, letting him brush our teeth, letting him brush his own teeth, making up a silly song, etc etc. Sometimes whatever we try makes it better for one night, but then we’re back to the same. Now that we’re over the two year mark, I’m starting to get concerned about cavities because I don’t know how really clean we’re getting his teeth in the 30 seconds we might be able to get the brush in his mouth. I don’t want to traumatize the poor kid by forcefully holding him down and restraining his arms every night, but I also don’t want our first trip to the dentist to result in four cavities or something. (And no, we haven’t been to the dentist yet because I really don’t think there’s a chance he’ll open his mouth for a stranger when he won’t even come close to opening it for me or his dad.)

So… help! Did you go through this with your kids or have they been rock star teeth brushers from the start? I’d love some new suggestions to try or at the very least, to know when we might expect to come out of this. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Haa, timely! I just finished taking my two older boys to their respective dental check-ups, so teeth have been a regular topic of conversation around here. (But also HUZZAH, off the hook for another six months until I have to take them again!)

The good news is that despite having spent the last six years locked in various brushing battles with various levels of success, we have not had a single, solitary cavity. And that’s with one super-sensory-avoiding kid who REFUSED to let me brush his teeth without screaming and fighting FOR YEARS, and with one super-independent preschooler who insists on doing it all by himself…and screams and fights if I try to get in there and do a slightly better job.

Yet at the dentist, every time: “You guys are doing a great job! Keep on doing what you’re doing; see you in six months.”

Now, I’m not saying that brushing isn’t important and that it’s totally okay to half-ass it or whatever. I think we balance out the brushing failings with 1) decent genetics (my husband and I never had cavities until we were older and were drinking soda and eating a lot of junk), and 2) a very good diet for our kids: NO soda, VERY minimal juice, limited sweets (baked goods AND candy), no “gummy” candies or vitamins (our dentist ALWAYS specifically asks about gummy vitamins because they stick to teeth in the morning and can cause decay). We’re also super-hardcore about the no bottles after one year and no extra snacks after you brush your teeth for the night.

So I think if you’re concerned about your toddler’s toothbrushing routine (and who isn’t, honestly?), making sure you’re doing plenty of other good, dental-conscious things for their mouth via diet can give you extra breathing room. So if your kid is a non-tooth-brusher, but still taking a bottle of milk to bed or eats nothing but hamburger buns and fruit leather, well…it might be time to focus on improving at least one of those situations. It’s a balancing act, in the end.

And! Although I once felt EXACTLY the way you did regarding the dentist — my kid freaks when I brush his teeth, why in the world would I take him to the dentist? — I’ve since belatedly figured out that actually, that’s a little backwards. Depending on the dentist, anyway. Once I sacked up and started taking my children to the dentist, the tooth-brushing battles decreased significantly.

(Note that the recommendation is that children “should see a pediatric dentist when the first tooth appears, or no later than his/her first birthday.”  I never did that, but am going to follow it with Ike, just to kickstart the familiarity/comfort level. I’m not really sure we gained anything by waiting to introduce the dentist, you know?)

Now I’m not necessarily talking about just any dentist. You want a good pediatric dentist who is very good with kids, who hires very patient hygienists who are EXCEEDINGLY good with kids. Makes a world of difference. My children haven’t yet managed to have a full, complete cleaning yet — there’s usually at least one stage/instrument that they completely freak out about and refuse. And our dentist and hygienists have always been smart enough not to push, especially for kids with no cavities and healthy gums. “Next time,” they say, and focus on making sure the boys leave feeling successful, not scared, and loaded up with fun prizes.

But before that, they teach them (and me) the best brushing techniques and ideas for getting cooperation, and explain why it’s important in kid-friendly language and blah etc. How to make sure I’m not hurting them (pushing the brush too far back, etc.) and how to make the most of the 30-second window Ezra sometimes gives us to “help” (circles, not side-to-side, have him sit on my lap and lean back/upside-down while Jason brushes and sings). And I’m now a million times more confident in Noah’s solo brushing technique than I was before.

And while the dentist is still not like, their favorite place EVER or anything, they both definitely come away with an understanding that if they DON’T brush their teeth (and occasionally let Mommy help), the next trip to the dentist will probably not involve prizes and they won’t be allowed to skip the Vibrating Toothbrush Of Doom or X-Rays Of Death. Ezra was two when he first saw the dentist, and believe me, it was way, WAY easier at two than it was for Noah at four. (Hence my oath to take Ike earlier.)

Yes, it’s more of an educational experiment than a thorough cleaning at this point, but I’ve found it to be very helpful, despite my inner terror over potentially watching my kids freak the hell out. (I’d never thought about gummy vitamins and fruit snacks/leather as not being the best choice for teeth, until our dentist explained it. Huh!) They’ve each done at least one exam while sitting on my lap…while I restrain their arms and lean their heads into the dentist’s lap. Not fun! But it’s over in 10 minutes, tops. And then, oh my God, the relief at hearing that their teeth AREN’T rotting out of their heads because I get tired of fighting the brushing battle is SO. WORTH. IT.

Photo credit: BananaStock/Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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