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Toddler Toothbrushing Wars, Continued

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

Published March 30, 2012. Last updated June 14, 2018.
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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  • Olivia

    March 30, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Just in case anyone reading this did NOT hit the genetic jackpot, I’m offering commiseration. We have had the same battles with teeth brushing even though we started cleaning my daughters gums with gauze when she was an infant.

    Well, at her first dentist appointment 6 cavities were found, and they were bad enough to require caps. *sigh* Well, I had horrible baby teeth and not so great adult teeth, and my mother had horrible teeth, and her mother….At this point we do our best, but thank the stars she will lose these and hopefully we can stay ahead of the cavities when she gets her permanent teeth.

  • Sara M

    March 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    My 2 1/2 year old is not a fan of brusing his teeth or having us brush for him. I just took him for his first visit last week and he did great! He listened to the hygenist and dentist more than he listens to me. I ordered this timer about a month ago and while he may not be brushing that great, at least he is brushing for 2 minutes.
    It keeps him interested in brushing, which is better than what he was doing.

  • Jeannie

    March 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    I just want to second the opinion about the dentist. I had horrible experiences with the dentist as a kid, so I was super stressed about it, and searched for a specialized pediatric dentist … and my kid has been totally fine with it. The dentist is great with kids, the hygienists even more so, and my kid will be super cooperative with them, much moreso than with me. What’s more, my kid seems to take the dentist more seriously than me, so now (he’s six) will say stuff like “I need to brush my teeth! I don’t want cavities!” and not in an “I’m scared” way, just in a matter of fact way.

    And also, our toothbrushing battles went WAY down after visiting the dentist too. YMMV, of course. But it’s worth a shot!

  • Meg in VT

    March 30, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I agree with the not worrying as long as your kid’s teeth are not in a complete sugar bath. Also, a bit of flouride can’t hurt — either in your toothpaste, in the water (if you are on town water) or drops or tablets (if you are not). We have well water which we had tested (absolutely none!) so we give our 2.5 year old a flouride tablet nightly. And now they are starting them even earlier — the pediatrician gave us a prescription for vitamins with flouride for our 7 month old (who has no teeth yet, but I guess it helps). So that may be another front on which you can build strong teeth.

  • KelleyD

    March 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    I’ve been taking my boys to the dentist since they were around a year old. Oldest has had two cavities. {Won’t relate the semi-horror story of the first filling} But oldest has aaaaaaaaaaaalways been difficult with brushing, and still is off and on until this day {he’s almost 6} We tried letting him brush his teeth on his own for about a month and it just was not good, he barely brushed. {Our dentist recommends brushing their teeth up until 7-8 years old, article in magazine said same, basically about the time they would start learning cursive handwriting, something to do with dexterity and being able to hold the toothbrush at the right angle to get in between the gums and teeth} Just started regularly brushing our almost 2 year old’s teeth regularly. So far he loves to brush, except he wants to do most of the brushing, but will let me get in some when he is done with it. When we were going through the worst of the brushing trials with the oldest the dentist recommended using “Spiffies” Never really helped with us, but maybe your kiddo would like them. But patience, eventually it will get better.

  • Tara

    March 31, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Oroginal advice asker here: Thank you!! You just brought my stress level about potential cavities down about ten notches. And I’ll be searching out a good pediatric dentist for an appointment ASAP (fingers very crossed)!

  • Trish

    March 31, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I completely support the idea of a pediatric dentist, emphasis on pediatric. Your regular dentist may be a great person, but not used to dealing with kids or their teeth. The specialization makes a huge difference, both in manner and treatment. My husband and I make a great case study; both of us had major dental issues as kids (cross bites, etc.). I saw a pediatric dentist and pediatric orthodontist and have perfect teeth with minimal and very early treatment to this day. My husband saw an regular dentist, and the mistakes made have resulted in a situation where he would have to have his jaw broken in order to fix his teeth. Fortunately his teeth mesh and he can eat, but he doesn’t like to smile with his mouth open.

  • kari weber

    March 31, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    For my oldest, we had our first dental visit when he killed his front tooth at 4. Yep. His first visit was for a baby root canal. FUN! Despite a fairly tramatic first visit, he has no residual fears of the dentist. The youngest got a full mouth of teeth so stinkin’ young (I swear he had them all by 8 months!) we started him at 12 months. My oldest goes back and has the entire cleaning by himself with no problems. My youngest has been 4 times, and only the 3rd visit was done without me. He started out needing me to hold him, and then also needed me the last time (I don’t know what that was about). But! He gets the entire cleaning! So far healthy teeth! I can not stress ENOUGH the importance of finding a dentist that is a PEDIATRIC dentist! Ours also happens to be the ONLY dentist on the hospital boards of both local hospitals as well.  Not only does this ensure higher standards of safety when it comes to any kind of anesthetic (injected, ingested, or gas) but a much greater understanding of the total unique-edness of a young child’s developing mouth. Had I had a better dentist as a child I probably would not have been allowed to suck my thumb until I was 9 (!!), but orthodontic work would have probably taken a much different path, resulting in probably fewer of the jaw and teeth now.
    As for brushing, even if you have to pin them down, they most likely are not going to really remember it later. But dental pain, and cavities will have a much longer impact on them.

  • Julie

    March 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    I also second the recommendation for a pediatric dentist. The one we see is great with our kids. The hygenists think about things that I never would have – she played peek-a-boo with the mask so the kids weren’t scared of it, she let them feel the gloves on her hands before touching them with them, etc. They have TVs over the chairs playing cartoons for distraction. And at the first visit, all they did was “count” his teeth. Second they added in cleaning, third flouride treatment, etc. They can help you figure out a routine that works for your kids for dental care.

  • Susan Miller

    March 31, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I started brushing my daughter’s teeth nightly about 3 months after they came in. I think it helped that I got a battery powered toothbrush which made it fun and interesting. Also, I have her stand on the bathroom counter (with one arm wrapped around her) and the mirrored medicine cabinet open so she can see her reflection. Toddlers LOVE to watch themselves doing stuff…

    And then when I took her to the dentist at 2, he said she needed to FLOSS because her teeth were crowded and he was concerned that brushing alone wouldn’t be enough. I freaked out at this suggestion, but in the end she’s fine with it. As long as she gets to watch it being done!

  • Alissa

    March 31, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    OK, so what’s your fave vitamin for your kids if you don’t use handy-dandy Flinstones Gummies?  Do they make chewables?

    • Emily

      April 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      yes, they do!

  • BoCo Mama

    March 31, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Timely, indeed. Our 18-month old daughter still nurses at night and I received a huge lecture from our dentist at my last check that I had better night wean her “or else” and then I checked out as he added some scarey comment involving thousands of dollars in anesthesia. So what gives? We brush her teeth twice a day, she’s never had juice, no gummies to eat, but night weaning simply.isn’ until she’s ready. Brushing after night feedings is also out of the question as we cosleep and, well, not gonna happen. Our pediatrician rolled her eyes at my dentist’s comments and suggested we should continue brushing, night nurse as we are comfortable, and not worry. Has anyone else experienced this night weaning terror lecture from the dentist?

    • Myriam

      April 2, 2012 at 8:52 am

      I’d say just change the routine to nurse then brush, then cuddle, then dbded… that works with my 16 months old than weaned at 16 months…

      • Myriam

        April 2, 2012 at 8:53 am

        sorry, weaned at 14 months|

      • Myriam

        April 2, 2012 at 9:58 am

        Sorry again, I just finished re-reading your comment, and originally missed the part about co-sleeping… I don’t know how I missed it in the first place! However, I would say that you could try to switch your routine anyway, so that the brushing haapens after the feeding, and she can suckle after anyway, to soothe herself. That would encourage a good routine for later on anyway, for when she weanes!

    • Carolina

      April 2, 2012 at 3:23 pm

      We don’t co-sleep, but I’m still nursing a 19 month old. We brush/floss before the night feed, and then I use a xyitlol (sp?) wipe from my dentist to go over her teeth once more when she’s in her drousey state. I can do this in the dark now. Seems to work well.

  • Grammy

    March 31, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Alissa, google “children chewable vitamins” and you’ll find a number of options, including Flintstones.

  • bella

    April 1, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I have two bio kids and one adopted at birth kid, and I can tell you, genetics have a lot to do with cavities. My bio kids had zero cavities until teenagers, and my adopted child had cavities at every single checkup until he was six. As a side note, not just ANY pediatric dentist is a good one. We went to one who visited the schools and gave out cool prizes and sponsored school activities. She was very confident and explained to us that in Very Important Pediatric Dentist School she had learned to never let parents in the back with the kids or they act up. We went to her for years until I found out that in the back there was shock and horror going on, followed by lots of prizes (she gave out AWESOME prizes) right before they came back. Also, if the kids came out sniffling back tears, the hygienist always said they did SO GREAT in the back and just started fussing when they saw me again, which was a LIE. Once I found out, we switched to a truly awesome pediatric dentist who lets me in the back the whole time, every time.

    • Isabel


      April 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      OMG. thanks for sharing your story.

      my awesome pediatric dentist also allows me in the back. I think indications like that should not be underestimated.

    • Emily

      April 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      the philosophy is sound.. parents at say.. school fieldtrips make them SO much harder.

      but I would never go for a doctor or dentist who didn’t allow me to accompany my child. Not that my child would go without me anyways 😛

  • Myriam

    April 2, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I have a 16 months old that likes to brush her teeth herself, although it’s mostly sucking on the toothbrush!!! So I use an electric toothbrush, not the kiddie version, but a real Oral-B with her own brushing head. So, even if she only allows me access for 30 seconds, at least it’s an effective 30 seconds! That toothbrush also made wonder with us and allowed us to reduce our dentist visits from twice a year to once a year (with our dentist approval). Also, my niece, at around 4, did not want us to brush her teeth, so my sister used 2 strategies : she brushed her teeth in the bath (I don’t know why it worked, but I did), and she would say “let me spread the toothpaste around (for a good 2 minutes!!!) and then would let my niece “brush” her teeth!

  • liz

    April 2, 2012 at 10:46 am

    If you’re in the Northern Virginia area, you can’t do better than Dr. Patel at Ashburn Pediatric Dentistry. Parents are allowed in the examining room. The examining rooms have three kids going at once, so there’s peer-pressure to not be the one screaming your head off. Pixar films are going non-stop. Prizes are given out at the end.

    And Dr. Patel taught my son (now 10) how to floss his own teeth and explained how important it is, especially since his teeth are very close together (braces in our future!)

  • liz

    April 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Also, it’s easier to floss your kids’ teeth if you sit cross-legged on the bed and have them lie down with their head in your lap. Open wide, floss.

  • Julie W

    April 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    The most interesting thing I learned from our pediatric dentist: Did you know that cavities are contagious? From kissing, sharing food, drinks etc.. you spread the cavity-causing bacteria. So part of your kid’s dental hygiene needs to include parental check-ups. Also, if you start flossing their teeth when they are 2 they’ll never know differently…just like safety belts and carseats… And then they won’t be 40 or so (ahem) before they regularly floss.

    • Emily

      April 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      yes! I read this while I was pregnant! Once the germs are in their mouth, they’re there. That’s why you can’t just ignore the baby teeth and think you can wait until the adult teeth for proper oral care. The bacteria live on the gums and once you’ve got them…. they did say also not to use your child’s spoon when you’re helping them eat – always have your spoon and your child’s spoon. I also cannot imagine teaching my daughter flossing.. she’s 18 months, so I guess I have a little more time.. but whoa… I hate flossing!

  • VandyJ

    April 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    We lost the genetics lottery with our oldest and he had his first cavities filled at three and by six had had four teeth pulled due to abscesses and cavities.  The great pediatric dentist we have said some kids just have bad baby teeth.
     My youngest has shown no signs of trouble yet.  With him, the pediatrician we go to began offering fluoride treatments when he was one and he goes to see the real dentist in June.   I’m keeping my fingers crossed that both boys do well.  
    As for toothbrushing, do what you can and don’t make a huge issue about it.  At two my youngest wouldn’t open his mouth to brush, but by three he asks to brush and lets me finish.

  • Emily

    April 3, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I have had to hold my daughter down 1x so far when she wasn’t allowing me to brush. Not brushing just isn’t an option here. I don’t feel even a little bad about it.

  • Susan

    April 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    We have a great family dentist practice – it’s right in our neighborhood and is so convenient for all of us to go to (DH and I both have terrible teeth so our kids are most likely in for some traumatic future visits)…BUT they don’t see kids until they’re 3, which seems really late to me. We just took our oldest in and I really though it would be an awful visit, but he did SO well and let the hygienist do everything – count his teeth, polish them with the spinning thing (which I can’t stand TO THIS DAY), even floss a little. The only thing he didn’t like was the suction tube – but that’s okay, because I couldn’t pry it away from his 18 mo little brother.

    There’s a “Learn Along with Sesame Street” cartoon video on iTunes called Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me” that I downloaded to my iPod touch. My 3 yo loves to watch it, and if he refuses to brush I just remind him what Super Ultra Mega Smile Man says… works.every.time.

    • Susan

      April 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm

      Forgot to mention – the iTunes video is FREE. Wahoo!

  • GB

    April 8, 2012 at 2:53 am

    My “do it myself” 2.5 yrold has also made it difficult for us to brush his teeth.  My latest game is we pretend he’s a “baby” again and I brush his teeth for him.  

  • Alicia

    April 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

    We had no problem with tooth-brushing until we did and then in a big way: so many tears and so much drama. New toothbrushes, songs, new toothpaste–nothing worked. Nothing until cat videos on the iphone, that is.

    My son (16 months) doesn’t watch any TV so a 2-2.5 minute video of a cute cat on you tube is like magic. He sits, he brushes, he lets us brush. Mornings and evenings are so much nicer, and now if you ask him to get ready to brush he teeth he races for the bathroom and sits eagerly waiting.

    Some may call it bribery. It probably is. I like to think of it as an incentive 🙂

    • Isabel


      April 20, 2012 at 10:20 am

      I think it’s an incentive. You’re forming a positive association with brushing his teeth. Do you know anybody who LOVES to brush their teeth? We’re all extrinsically motivated when it comes to brushing our teeth. Com’on we do it because we don’t want cavities or our teeth to fall out. 😉

  • Ksanna

    April 29, 2015 at 5:53 am

    Lucky you. Having a child that hates brushing teeth and trows all the tentrums and you can be super easy about it because they still have super awesome teeth. We just had our first dentist visit at a very nice kids dentist. Which should be all fun and what not. Turns out my daughter already has 4 cavities. Small ones, but they are there. She’s not drinking sugary drinks, she ist not eating sweets (exeption, those birthday parties), she’s eating all healthy and lots of veggies and so on and so one. She’s hypersensitive and screams her lungs out just when we name the word toothbrush. One doctor told me to give it time and don’t stress about it and that she needs a healthy relationship to brushing teeth which she will not get if we pin her down to brush her teeth. What a wonderfull advise. Luckily that was just two weeks of mainly only chewing on a toothbrush before we went to a dentist. Wonder what would have happend I would have listen to this stupid advise earlier. I again need to pin her down. Obviously this is not fun. That’s not fun for anyone. I just get so annoyed by people suggesting to “forming a positive association with brushing his teeth” or “As for toothbrushing, do what you can and don’t make a huge issue about it. At two my youngest wouldn’t open his mouth to brush, but by three he asks to brush and lets me finish.” So you just leave it? And be ok with a under two year old does have cavities? I don’t know people if these suggestions are even remotely ok?

  • Luanna Poole

    February 27, 2016 at 11:40 am

    THANK YOU ALL!!!!!! I’m so relieved. I thought my great grandson was in some kind of major medical mouth and gum trouble.