The Toddler and The Toothbrush: Three Steps to Developing Healthy Dental Hygiene for Your Toddler


With my toothless 7-month old son already exhibiting copious amounts of free will, I fear the battle that is getting a toddler to brush their teeth. I decided to prepare now. My advice to others with wildly sweet yet wildly powerful babies is summarized in three suggestions: 1) start early, 2) create a routine, and 3) make it fun.

The Toddler and The Toothbrush: Three Steps to Developing Healthy Dental Hygiene for Your Toddler

Start Early

Start a dental routine before your baby has a toothy grin. The importance of an early routine goes beyond dental hygiene and is more about getting your child used to the process.

Before they even have teeth, wipe their gums with damp gauze or cloth once a day to prevent bacteria from building up and harming teeth when they push through. This will help your baby get used to the idea of something being in their mouth and the brushing movement. You can also let them gnaw on a teething toothbrush to help your child get used to the toothbrush concept while easing teething discomfort.

Once your baby has teeth -- even just a lone soldier tooth -- brush their teeth and gums twice a day. Some babies have trouble accepting a toothbrush, so continue with gauze or cloth until they are ready. Note: you don’t need toothpaste until you know your child won’t swallow it.

The same is true with taking your child to the dentist -- expose your child to the experience early. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends taking your child to the dentist by age one or within six months of their first tooth.

Create a Routine

Create a routine that is an inevitable part of life by being consistent with daily dental care and taking your child to the dentist every six months. No exceptions, no ifs, no buts, just do it. This is your part of the work as the parent. Similar to a bedtime routine, if your child knows what to expect, they are less likely to fight the process...after tears and resistance, of course.

Set up realistic expectations for your child since there is both a learning curve and an acceptance curve. Be patient with your child’s motor skills development since brushing teeth is actually a complex motion to master. The reality is you will be brushing their teeth for them for a while, and after that, you will supervise operations for an even longer while. In fact, this will be on your daily list of to-dos until they are halfway to high school, so settle in for the long haul.

Make It Fun

Make dental hygiene a party, not just for your child but for you as well. While I used the word “party,” let’s be reasonable -- it’s dental hygiene, so aim for taking “chore” and “misery” out of the equation.

When you brush your baby’s gums or teeth, smile, sing a song, make funny noises, whatever makes your baby relax. When your child is ready for a toothbrush, that’s when the real distraction work begins.

Experts recommend we brush our teeth for two minutes, so you have two minutes to distract your child from the realities of this mundane activity. You know your child best, so shoot for whatever resonates with them. There are seven gazillion ideas out there to make it fun, here are a few to chew on:

  • Make it a family dance party.

  • Let them brush your teeth and be overly dramatic about it.

  • Play copycat and use funny sounds or faces.

  • Sing or play a song and have them brush until it’s over.

  • Use a timer and pretend it’s a matter of stamina to make it through.

  • Let them challenge you to do something while they brush such as imitate an animal or hop on one leg.

Since each child is a beautiful and bizarre snowflake, come up with something that incorporates their unique version of fun. Use these two minutes to be ridiculous with your snowflake, enjoy their laughter, and get a few teeth scrubbed.

Who’s the Boss?

As parents, we all know that power struggles tend to be a child’s favorite game. So, if you treat brushing as a war, your child will accept the challenge and put up their best fight. If your child resists brushing their teeth, it’s not a time to battle, it’s a time to relax, teach, and bond.

Some suggest you and another person pin down your child while you shove a toothbrush into their inevitably screaming mouth. This sounds like a surefire way to develop a visceral hatred of brushing teeth. Depending on your child’s area of resistance, I would opt for less medieval methods such as:

  • Take the Controls. If your child isn’t ready to brush their own teeth, do it for them with a regular toothbrush or a finger toothbrush.

  • Build Up Time. Slowly tack on time as your child gets used to brushing their teeth, building towards the goal of two minutes twice a day.

  • Be a Teacher. Stand behind your child while facing a mirror. Then brush their teeth with your hand placed over their hand, so they can watch and feel the motion.

  • Barter the Control. Give your child control over as much as you can -- the toothbrush,  the song/story, the animal you imitate -- whatever gives them a sense of choice and being the boss except for the actual brushing, which you handle as the real, undercover boss.

  • Show Them Why. Patience Bleskan, a child development specialist, recommends that since kids need to know why we do things and since tooth decay is not an idea they comprehend easily, photos are a great way to show them why. When your child is old enough to grasp the connection, find non-nightmare inducing images of tooth decay and show them to your child, explaining that this is why we brush.

Who Cares?

We all know baby teeth aren’t permanent, so why do they matter? Because of statistics and biology, that’s why.

Sadly, tooth decay is one of the most common childhood conditions in the U.S. A few alarming stats that further encouraged me to care for my son’s non-existent teeth:

  • One in 10 two-year-olds have at least one cavity.

  • By age three, 28% of children have at least one cavity.

  • By age five, nearly 50% of children have at least one cavity.

Those statistics have entirely too many cavities in them. I choose to fight those statistics with an early and consistent dental plan and making sure my son’s diet isn’t overloaded with sugar since sugar causes tooth decay. It is important to note that milk, formula, and juice are all sources of sugar, so watch out for prolonged exposure to them without brushing.

Biology also makes baby teeth important because they:

  • Serve as placeholders for permanent teeth which helps keep teeth straight.

  • Contribute to good alignment for the jawbones and the bite.

  • Make chewing and eating easier.

  • Shape that adorable cherub face.

  • Help your child’s speech, allowing them to say things like “I love you, beautiful mama”, which they are obviously dying to say.

  • Let’s not forget about old fashioned vanity -- a grill of rotten teeth is no fun for anyone.

So, while baby teeth are temporary, not caring for them can have a permanent impact.

Final Answer

Good habits really do start from the beginning, so help your child and yourself by starting early, creating a routine, and making it fun. Use your copious amounts of free will and stop the toothbrush war before the battle begins. I’m not so naive as to think that using these tactics will automatically result in a child who begs for floss, but I do think my dental campaign has some teeth in it. The beautiful smile of your wildly sweet yet wildly powerful child will thank you for your early efforts. Consider getting a dental plan as it covers everyone in your household - even kiddos regardless of how many teeth they have.

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