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Refusing to Brush Teeth

Toddler Wars: Toothbrushing

By Amalah

Haha, you asked for it, Amy! No, really. Been reading (and commenting) on your blog since long before Ezra. Thank you for the 40 week pregnancy column, BTW, which kept me saner than I would otherwise have been throughout Little Miss Kickboxer’s residence in my uterus.

Speaking of the one who is almost Ezra’s age …

Toothbrushing. Drama or happiness with flowers? A couple of weeks ago, Little Miss Kickboxer decided that toothbrushing wasn’t for her any more. Ever. Where she used to sit on our bathroom counter and dutifully do her “eeeeee” and “aaaaaaa” while holding on to her two play toothbrushes as I cleaned her teeth with a third one (and toddler toothpaste), there is now screaming and NONONONONOALLDUNNNNNN! and running away and always impending mayhem. I’ve gone as far as using pill-the-cat mechanisms, meaning wrapping her into a towel and brushing her teeth while she screams and cries, but all that screaming and crying really offends the cat’s delicate sensibilities.

Also, Little Miss Kickboxer doesn’t think that tooth monkeys should be counted nor brushed away, and neither should little bacteria because in our house, we apparently honor all living things.

How did you train Noah and Ezra to allow toothbrushing?



So first of, Noah. Has kind of a THING about his mouth. Hypersensitive. Super-defensive. He always, always hated toothbrushing. I would say we experienced toothbrushing drama from about 15 months old until…I dunno, last week? No, not quite that bad, but he fought us with every bone in his thrashy (and surprisingly strong) body for at least a couple years. But his THING was one of his sensory THINGS, so there really wasn’t much for us to do other than attempt to amuse him with toothbrushing-timers and silly toothbrushing-songs and licensed-character toothbrushes that lit up or sang songs…right before one of us held him down while the other brushed his teeth against his will. We did oral motor therapy to build up his tolerance for sensory input in his mouth, sang a Yo Gabba Gabba! song about tiny ugly germs about five bajillion nights in a row, and eventually he started brushing his own teeth with not quite as much sturm und drang about it. Now, at five, he gets one shot at doing it himself but is warned if Mommy sees more sucking-on-the-toothbrush than actual brushing, Mommy is going to do it for him. That usually prompts a quick return to proper brushing form, though sometimes yes: I still do it for him. Because I am STILL BIGGER THAN HE IS.

Now Ezra, once upon a time, LOVED getting his teeth brushed. Because Noah brushed his teeth! And Mommy and Daddy brushed their teeth! Brushing your teeth must be AWESOME! He would, like your daughter, obediently open up and let us brush his mouthful of chompers and then even mimic the motions by himself surprisingly well. We once again mentioned the fact that if Ezra had been our first and/or only child, we’d be two of the smuggest, jerkiest parents alive because he just made it all so EASY.

Then about a week ago, he changed his mind abruptly about this whole “dental care” nonsense. Abruptly and WITH A VENGEANCE. He started running down the hall and slamming doors when he saw me loading up the toothpaste. He started throwing the toothbrush on the ground, or AT BEST, halfheartedly giving it a bite or two…before throwing it on the ground. One night I tried brushing his teeth for him while he just stood there, and he jerked his head back so violently that he lost his balance, fell backwards…and whacked his head on the bathroom door hinge, leaving a nice little black-and-blue divot on his skull and shaving multiple years off my life.

All of this is to say: Yeah. I don’t exactly have all the solutions here, but am posting your question anyway in hope that someone else does, and will post it in the comments.

We recently switched Ezra to a battery-powered toothbrush like his big brothers, and while he enjoys the novelty of it, he still isn’t capable of really brushing his teeth himself, which I guess is what he wants. We get our toothbrushes out and demonstrate how to do it and sometimes he’ll mimic the motions. We let him “play” with a toothbrush at other times so he can “practice” and it’s “fun” and we can be all DJ-Lance-like with the “YAY DENTAL HYGIENE IS AWESOME!”

But when push comes to shove at bedtime, when it’s just too important that we really, really brush his teeth, we eventually hit a point where we simply have to drop the games and do it for him, no matter how much he yowls about it. He’ll be seeing the pediatric dentist soon and I hope the experience will help rather than like, thoroughly traumatize him further. In the meantime, I like to tell myself it’s simply a toddler rite of passage and he’ll eventually outgrow it, like Noah did. Kind of. A little bit. Argh.

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

Published September 22, 2010. Last updated June 24, 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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  • Christy

    September 22, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Thank you for posting this. I look forward to seeing the responses because I cannot get my 16 month old (almost 17 months) to open his mouth to brush at all. Ever! To make matters worse, he is teething and sensitive to things in his mouth right now… hope there are some good suggestions.

  • KelleyD

    September 22, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    My four year old is a nightmare to get his teeth brushed. He wants to brush himself. But when he “brushes” he just kind of wobbles the brush around in his mouth and/or chews on the brush. We have a little sand timer that he is told he has that long {2 minutes} to brush by himself and then it is Mommy’s turn to brush his teeth. And it ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS turns into a big production generally ending in a wrestling match {which is fun with him sitting on the counter} to get it done. He grabs at the toothbrush, my hands, sticks his hands in my face, bites down on the toothbrush, talks constantly, makes noise just in general, oh and laughs like a COMPLETE maniac. We have tried eeeeeverything. Bribing him with stickers, “treats” etc. Taking things away as punishment when he doesn’t behave. Nothing really works. I think I get one good night a week where my fuse doesn’t run out and he goes to bed with a good brushing. Hopefully some day it gets better. If I had the money to throw around I would seeeeeriously consider hiring someone to come in a brush his teeth every night, it’s THAT bad. And it makes me feel like OMG the worst mommy ever when I lose it. And miraculously, at his dentist appointment yesterday he didn’t have any cavities, so I guess something is working.

  • liz

    September 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    We made up a song at our house. Very Elvis-ish, so wiggling’s appropriate.

    We’re gonna brush, brush your teeth (2x)
    We’re gonna brush brush brush brush brush brush brush your teeth WOOHOO!

    We’re gonna brush ’em high, gonna brush ’em low
    Brush them brush them go! go! go!

    We’re gonna brush, brush your teeth (2x)
    We’re gonna brush brush brush brush brush brush brush your teeth WOOHOO!

    We’ll brush ’em left, gonna brush ’em right
    Brush those teeth all through the night

    We’re gonna brush, brush your teeth (2x)
    We’re gonna brush brush brush brush brush brush brush your teeth WOOHOO!

    We’ll brush ’em up, gonna brush ’em down
    Brush those teeth all over town

    We’re gonna brush, brush your teeth (2x)
    We’re gonna brush brush brush brush brush brush brush your teeth WOOHOO!

    Now we’re gonna brush your tongue
    Brusha brusha now we’re done.

    We’re gonna brush, brush your teeth (2x)
    We’re gonna brush brush brush brush brush brush brush your teeth WOOHOO!

  • KelleyD

    September 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    And the dentist’s suggestion is to lay them down on the floor or bed and sit over them with their head between your knees so they can’t move their head around and brush. Which I guess is easier with the swallowable toothpaste, but we use the stuff with the flouride.

  • Alias Mother

    September 22, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    We had to do the pin-the-head thing for a while. Now, at a few months shy of three, she’s a little more cooperative only because we cold-heartedly started taking bedtime books away. Yep. We do. She gets three books read to her before bed. Each time we have to correct her for being uncooperative (during teeth brushing or other bedtime activity) she loses a book. Early on, we gave her lots of warnings and a ten-count before enacting because she was younger and needed that time but now we’re pretty hardcore. She gets one warning. Then it’s gone.

    But, of course, your kid has to be able to understand the punishment. And that varies by the kid. But once they get old enough, try it.

  • Jasmine

    September 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I remember working up from a towel wrapped over my finger when I was really small. My grandmother aske me if I could feel my teeth at the back 😀 and because I was so envious that my sister was losing teeth, she told me that rubbing it well each day would make sure it dropped soon…

    Adult toothpaste is horribly minty!! I hated it … 🙁 but my parents made it some kind of challenge to see how well I could tolerate it.

    Guess I was such a sucker! Fell for it without thrashing!

  • Nicole M.

    September 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Although there is still much refusal, crying, and general complaining that goes on, one thing that seems to help a little is if I give my 21-month old son my own toothbrush and let him brush my teeth with it while I brush his.  He is usually so distracted by this fun activity that he doesn’t seem to notice that I manage to get a few good brushes in.  We’re still far from 3 minutes of brushing, but he seems to be getting a little better!  I also use a very soft brush because if I hurt his gums in any way, he clamps his mouth shut and that’s the end of that.

  • Crystal

    September 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I second Nicole M. My (two year old) son loved getting his teeth brushed and then all of a sudden (right about when the independence thing kicked in) started hating it. If I give him my toothbrush and let him brush Mommy’s teeth while I brush his, then he’s totally cool with it. He also thinks it’s fun when I brush his tongue and his lips.
    Flossing, however, is a different story…

  • robin

    September 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Can you go back to brushing with a baby washcloth for a little while? That’s what we’re doing with our toddler right now. He like to “play” brush his teeth with a toothbrush, but there is no way I can brush his teeth with one, he screams, he runs, he clamps his mouth shut. We don’t have nearly so much trouble with the wet washcloth. I just sit him on my lap at bedtime, and ah … lovingly restrain his head with my left forearm, then just brush as quickly as I can with the cloth. He hardly fights it at all, I think it’s less traumatic than bristle and back and forth and whatever else. I don’t know why it works, but it does for us. Right now.

  • Olivia

    September 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    My 1.5 yr old has started fight brushing, too. She used to be pretty good about it until a month ago, but then she started biting. We were still using a finger-brush and decided, ouch, let’s get a regular brush.

    I like the suggestion of letting her brush my teeth and will try it tonight. She certaily likes to help mommy and daddy with other things so maybe this will work.

  • Cassie

    September 22, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    We just started brushing our 9 mos old’s teeth. (What? Too young? But he has 8 teeth and we used a washcloth and then this little rubber finger thing, but those teeth HURT when they bite down and he likes to bite down! OUCH!) So far, he doesn’t LOVE it and he definitely won’t willingly open his mouth for the brushing, but he will tolerate a few strokes and he gets better at his tolerating each night. But now I’m getting worried that in another 6 months or so… poof! Tolerating done. Ah well, at least this column has some suggestions to fall back on when the inevitable happens.

  • Missy

    September 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I still have this battle with my 3.5 year old every night. She gets a turn, then mommy gets a turn because her turn is usually just wiggling the brush around and sucking the toothpaste. We also recently took away her “apply your own toothpaste” privileges when we switched to fluoride toothpaste. I explained that this was not safe to swallow and she just didn’t know how much to put on. So I’d teach her by letting her watch me do it. Maybe when she’s a little older I’ll let her apply her own toothpaste again, but for now, it’s mommy’s job.

  • Jen K.

    September 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    My 3 YO also has sensory issues with his mouth, and fights tooth brushing big time. He screams no matter wahat, but we have found that he tolerates Tom’s of Maine Strawberry Kids toothpaste more than others. Our pediatric dentist (who deals with a lot of SN kids) helped us with positioning — my husband sits and holds Z chest to chest, with Z’s legs straddling his waist. I sit cross-legged, facing my husband, and my husband holds Z’s hands and leans him back so that Z’s head is on my legs/lap. I brush. She also gave us an “Open Wide Mouth Rest”, which is a foam board tool that I use keep his teeth apart so I can brush.

  • HereWeGoAJen

    September 22, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Ah. I can’t comment on this post today because then I’ll have to admit that this is not a battle we are fighting yet. We tried for a while, but she bit and kicked and refused. And since she is such a poor sleeper, I decided that it wasn’t yet worth her getting that worked up right before bed. But I gave myself a time limit and it is nearly up, so I’ll have to start again soon.

  • Mary

    September 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Just random FYI- our dentist told me to brush my child’s teeth until he could write cursive. I second the using a baby washcloth method.

  • Heather

    September 22, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Like Nicole M, JC brushes mine while I brush his.

    OR Sometimes he likes holding a hand mirror so that he can see what he is doing better.

  • Mama Bub

    September 22, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    My son is three and toothbrushing is a twice daily battle. We saw the pediatric dentist recently and he said we’re doing a good job, so apparently the holding him down and distracting him method is working for us. The one and only thing that gets him to let us brush his teeth is having him “show the baby how she’ll get to brush her teeth when she gets bigger.” He’s very into the things that he can do that the baby can’t do yet. This is working for the moment, but it’s definitely not the high point of our day!

  • NinaN

    September 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    My now 5 year old, was the worst teeth brusher from the moment she had a tooth in her mouth (which, thankfully wasn’t until around age 1). We did the lay her on the ground between our legs, tuck her arms and legs under our legs and let her scream it out approach. I think around age 2, we were able to brush nicely in the bathroom. She doesn’t seem to be traumatized by this approach and likes to go to the dentist, so I say do what you have to, to get their teeth cleaned. Because it is far less traumatic for everyone involved, than needing surgery to have your cavity ridden teeth capped. Plus, it’s easier to brush their teeth when they are screaming 😉

  • bessie.viola

    September 22, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    It’s funny, I JUST posted the other day about an epic fight my 2yr old daughter and I got into over toothbrushing. It’s ridiculous. She does okay *most* of the time if we let her “brush” first (which is mostly sucking on the toothpaste, let’s be honest). Then when she’s done (and we set a time limit for this) we get to “check” (i.e. “brush”). Most nights I make a BIG deal out of that part, exclaiming over “I SEE ORANGES! And COOKIES!” which generally makes her giggle and allow me to brush… but yeah, it’s a battle.

  • Diana

    September 22, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Bribery is a beautiful thing – though it didn’t work reliably on my little guy until he turned 3.  In the morning – if you want your TV show you have to let mommy brush your teeth.  In the evening – if you want your bedtime story, you have to let mommy brush your teeth.  And the most important step is – when he says no, I say okay, no bedtime story then – and about 60 seconds later, he decides to cooperate….

  • Julie

    September 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I’m just now trying to make the transition from “let him play with brushing and then I’ll “check” if he’ll let me but try not to make it too traumatic” to “Ok, we’ve got to get serious about this now” as my son finally has molars. It’s a fight. I’m glad to see all the tips here. I may have to give in and do as the dentist suggested and just “pin him down and do it”, but I really don’t like that approach.

  • MommiePie

    September 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    My 20 month old will suck on the toothpaste and that is about it. So, when I inevitably go in to take over, he cries. Really loud! But the good thing is that his mouth is wide open at that point so it is easy to brush all of his teeth. I hate doing it, but it has to be done. You think he’d learn by now, but it’s the same routine every night.

  • Mummyfish

    September 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    When my kids were older (2.5 and up), I just let it go at the time.  Then, when they want ANYTHING with sugar in it the next day, I will them that they can’t have it as treats are only for kids who take care of their teeth. After three days or so, they usually let me have a go at it. 

  • Trilby

    September 22, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I have two boys, 4 and 2. Brushing the teeth… It’s a fight. It sounds horrible, but when they’re screaming I can see in their mouths and it’s easier to brush. We’re working on less fighting and screaming, but for now it’s just easier to get the job done right and fast, then move on. Sometimes my 4 year old will sit nicely or even “do it” himself. Most days though, it’s 10 minutes of my morning and evening that I could really do without but can’t skip.

  • Melissa C

    September 22, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    My daughter will put up a fight with me but not with my husband. So guess who is in charge of toothbrushing?

  • Erin

    September 22, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    My two year old is great at letting me brush his teeth, but it didn’t start out that way. I basically had to hold his head, gently, but firmly and sometimes it took two of us to get it done. I took him to the dentist, and she actually switched us to fluoride toothpaste, and she instructed us to use just a TEENY bit, and said it’s ok if he swallows it. I’m going to check up with my ped at his appointment next week. She also wants us to floss, which he lets me do if I say, “tickle tickle tickle.” He thinks I’m “tickling” his gums and it makes him laugh. I think persistence and insistence is key. The electric toothbrush helped, and so did changing to the right “angle.” The dentist had my son sit on my lap facing me, and then lay his head in her lap. (We were knee to knee.) I adapted it so that I sit on the floor at home, and my son lays his head in my lap. That way I can get into where I need to without putting and pressure on his jaw. That said, I’m totally aware that he might freak over it next week and we’ll be at square one.


  • Michael

    September 23, 2010 at 8:51 am

    yeegads…………………you mean there might come a time when they want to stop brushing their teeth??

    My beloved two year stops everything to brush her teeth, even bad behaviour.

    And now you’re telling me this might change? Say it ain’t so.


  • Christina

    September 23, 2010 at 9:42 am

    They have these doggy toothbrush things. I know, I sound nuts. Worked on my cousin… particularly when there was a smiley face drawn on it.

  • Lori

    September 23, 2010 at 11:33 am

    When my little guy was around 2 or so, it became difficult. At the advice of his dentist, a father of three, I just held him and got it done. (Not on the floor – Sitting on the toilet, I was able to wrap my left arm around him and hold both his arms, and cross my leg over his body to keep him still.) As he got older, I told him he would get holes in his teeth if he didn’t brush, and they have to give him a shot to fix the holes. The thought of a shot was enough motivation most nights. Now that he’s a little older (almost 5) and can spit well, we have a tinting rinse that he really likes to use.

  • amber

    September 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    So this works for us – I let my daughters (4 and 3) have a go at it themselves, then tell them that I have to have a turn because the tooth doctor said so. Like so: “I know you don’t want me to brush your teeth, but I HAVE to! The tooth doctor told me I had to do it!” With an “eh, what are you going to do/that’s just the way it is” kind of tone.

    And they are totally fine after that. Something about having a nebulous authority figure (with more authority than ME) instruct the tooth brushing does it for them, I guess? 

  • JCF

    September 23, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    My kids (almost 3 and 21 months) are totally unpredictable. One day, they’ll throw a fit, the next is fine. We sort of cradle them in our laps, tilt their heads back, and go for it. We make them let us doing at least a decent job brushing, and then if they’ve been good, they can have a turn.

    The thing that helps the most is getting a new toothbrush every few weeks, so they don’t have too much time to get bored by Dora/Diego/Mickey/etc. Plus, they bite on the brush so much, it needs frequent replacement anyway.

  • Stevie

    September 24, 2010 at 10:16 am

    My 2 YO is a booger most nights about the brushing, but he’s so OMGLETMEDO!IDO!IDO!NOTYOU!! I make him sit thru me brushing them correctly before I let him do it. If he doesn’t sit and tolerate it, he doesn’t get to do it himself. Or turn off the bathroom light, which is like his ULTIMATE PRIZE. My kid is so weird.

  • kari Weber

    September 25, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Well. I feel a bit bad posting this because… we don’t have fights over this.  I have  5 year old and 17 month old boys and they have never fought the teeth brushing thing.  We have LOTS of toothbrushes in the bathroom, and the older gets to pick which one to use each time, maybe that helps.  The younger has had a full mouth of teeth (literally) since he was about 8 months old.  He has always loved to chew a toothbrush, and will let me brush willingly.  I have to work a little harder with him because he doesn’t quite understand the concept of keeping his mouth open, etc.  However, I also let him hold his own brush while I use another to brush his teeth, so that may help.
    Not every child goes through the fighting stage.  I just needed to mention this for those posters who have a good thing going right now, and are freaked out a bit by all the other commenters!

  • Joanne

    September 27, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Umm, have never really had this problem with my kids.  Maybe a  few times each?  And then we would hold them down and do it.  By the way, I’m a dental student, and parents should really be brushing their kids’ teeth until kids are 8 years old or so (until they have the manual dexterity for cursive writing, which was mentioned above). 

  • Brooke

    September 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    My son HATED getting his teeth brushed. He did okay once we started letting him brush himself. He had two toothbrushes…one for him to use and one for me to use and we would take turns brusing his teeth. Then he started hitting me,wrestling,and trying to dive off the bathroom counter. So I got him a step stool since he is now nearly 19 months old and he is tall enough to stand at the counter and he loves it. He’s a brushing machine, of course I still have to “check his work” when he’s done. Now I’m just thinking of what I can do when the step stool amazingness wears off!!! (At least he likes the taste of toothpaste though! My 5 year old niece tries to get out of brushing her teeth by saying toothpaste is “Too spicy!!! Why must you hurt me?!?”)

  • beccalecca

    September 28, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Knowing that it could change…what works for us right now is taking turns. She gets a turn brushing her teeth while I brush mine. And then…we switch. She brushes *my* teeth for me while I brush hers for her. A bit of a juggling act when she tells me to aah or eeh while I’m trying to, but we get the job done.

  • JanineGWebb

    September 29, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Is there any Mom who doesn’t have teeth-brushing issues??
    To date, we have tried the following with my three-and-a-half-year-old, most of which worked for a few nights then lost their novelty and effectiveness…
    1) Buying one of many silly licensed toothbrushes. If memory serves, we’ve had Thomas, Snoopy, Spiderman, and Frosty
    2) Buying a musical toothbrush and telling him to brush the whole song
    3) Buying a spinning Spiderman toothbrush
    4) Telling him he’ll get “pirate (yellow) teeth” if he doesn’t brush
    5) Singing the alphabet song twice while brushing…This one works the most consistently, if you manage to get the brush in his mouth to start.
    6) Threatening to take his Spiderman toy away (That was tonight)
    Of course, his sixteenth-month-old sister runs to get her brush the second she sees his. Sounds great, I know. Except, she wants to brush them herself, and we all know how that goes!

  • Erin

    October 10, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I sit my 2 year old up on the counter and hand him my tooth brush so he can brush my teeth while I brush his. It satisfies his need to brush something and he naturally opens his mouth when I do. I get about a minute of toothbrushing time before he gets bored with brushing my teeth.