Parent: “Time to brush your teeth.”
Child: “No!”

Parent: “You don’t want to get cavities, do you?”
Child: “No brush!”

Parent: “Come on, let’s just get this done.”
Child: “Noooooo!!!!!”

At some point, most young children go on strike from tooth-brushing, clamping their jaws shut and refusing to let their parents come near them with the dreaded brush. There are many reasons why toddlers and preschool-age children sometimes resist having their teeth brushed. Considering the situation from your child’s perspective and identifying the specific reasons for resistance can help parents remove the roadblock and get kids back on track with good dental hygiene.

Sensory issues

A sensory impediment to brushing is the first possibility to investigate. If your child cringes at the feeling of the brush on her teeth, it could be that her gums are tender as a result of a new tooth coming in. An over-the-counter numbing agent can provide a short-term fix. If your child tends to be hypersensitive as a rule (with a low threshold for many tastes, sounds and physical sensations), try wrapping your index finger in gauze and using that instead of the brush. Also consider an alternative toothpaste flavor and be sure to use the appropriate amount: the size of a grain of rice for children under the age of 3, and a pea-sized amount for children 3 to 6 years of age.

If, on the other hand, your child craves sensory stimulation, he may clamp down on the toothbrush with his teeth, in which case you can let him do so as soon as the top teeth are brushed and then do the same with the bottom teeth. You may even consider keeping two toothbrushes on hand: one for the business of brushing and the other for the sensory gratification of biting — after brushing is finished.

Self-care and independence

Children are hard-wired to seek independence from a very young age and self-care is one of the first areas in which they assert their instinctive drive toward autonomy. As children become more aware of themselves as separate beings from their parents, they experience a growing sense of their bodies as their own and they resent someone else taking control. To avoid power struggles over tooth-brushing and other aspects of self-care (such as dressing and bathing), remind yourself that what appears to be a display of defiance is often just a poorly expressed desire for self-sufficiency.

Although parents should begin training children in the skill of brushing their teeth by the age of 2, most kids won’t master the task until they are closer to 7. The trick is to provide them with the sense that they are in charge of their own mouths while ensuring that their teeth actually get clean.

Teamwork

The concept of teamwork can help you gradually ease yourself out of the job and give your child the feeling of self-sufficiency he craves. Be his partner, but let him decide who does what: “Do you want to brush the top or the bottom? The front or the back?” You can also give him the impression that he is handling it all on his own, while you merely provide the “finishing touch” or “the extra sparkle.”

On weekends or whenever you are not in a rush, take extra time to train your child in oral hygiene. An amusing children’s book about toothbrushing, such as “Brush Your Teeth Please,” by Leslie McGuire, can make these lessons more fun. Alternatively, you can help your child “teach” a doll or stuffed animal how to brush its teeth, using the demonstration to simultaneously hone your child’s technique. “Oops — Baby Bear missed a spot in the back. You got it! Now it’s time to floss.”

Monkey see, monkey do

Children may not listen to what their parents say, but they closely watch what we do. Model good dental habits by letting your child watch you brush and floss your teeth. Talk yourself through the steps, or make up a song about them (“This is the way I brush my front teeth/back teeth/molars … ”). Be sure to demonstrate the immediate benefits of brushing by admiring your pearly whites in the mirror and commenting on how good it feels to have clean teeth.

It is unrealistic to expect young children to understand the long-term consequences of not brushing. Rather than use logic to talk them into it, try commiserating instead. “I understand. Sometimes I don’t feel like brushing my teeth either.” Children expect us to nag and coax and the shock of hearing their parent agree with them short-circuits the brewing power struggle so that you can get on with the job of brushing.

Have fun

The most common reason for toddlers and preschool-age children to resist tooth-brushing is that it is boring. Young kids live in the moment and are focused on having fun — right now. Tooth-brushing (like most things) will go more quickly and pleasantly with a young child if you approach it as an opportunity for mutual playfulness. Bring out your silliest self in order to transform the task into a fun activity. The sense of connection and affection will make the entire morning or bedtime routine run more smoothly.

  • Make it a game of hide-and-seek by pretending to find food still hiding in your child’s mouth. “Oh, I see those carrots back there. Is that you, hamburger? Come out, broccoli!”

  • Brush side-by-side with your child and compare your foamy smiles in the mirror.

  • Pretend to forget what you’re supposed to be brushing and ham it up as you “brush” her nose or ear by mistake. “Wait — something is wrong here. Is this where we brush?”

  • Take her mind off her mouth by reciting a nonsense limerick, singing a goofy song, or telling a wacky story.

Manage your own expectations

With young children, it is more important to instill the habit of twice-daily brushing than to insist on perfect technique. Skill will come with practice. For now, just focus on developing the routine of morning and evening brushing as the healthy habit of a lifetime.

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Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting Preschoolers" classes. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2 ½ to 18. PEPparent.org