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Brushing teeth   Cleaner teeth

The first step in supporting kids exploring caring for their teeth is letting go of the idea that brushing teeth twice daily is the one and only solution. Open up a world of options for them to try.

This is not about ways to get kids to brush teeth. It isn't even solutions to the problem of getting kids to brush teeth. What it is, is how parents who practice mindful parenting and respecting their kids go about finding ways to help their kids have clean teeth. What's important is not the solutions (though there are several that might work for people) but the process of being a child's partner.

My son Jude (4) had his first visit to the dentist the other day. Six cavities! We've come up with a game to play that he really loves; inspired by his love of computer war games! Sergeant Green (his green toothbrush) enters the battle ground, shooting and brushing away all the acid spraying bad bugs. When Sergt. Green's health is running low from battle, Jude holds out his hand with boxes of health for collection. When the battle is over, Sergt. Green retires for the day, returning for combat before Jude goes to bed. All good fun!!


When our boys did not like to brush their teeth, we bought a few toothbrushes and types of toothpaste for each of them. It turned it from "let's brush" to which toothbrush, which bathroom, which toothpaste. With all the choices they forgot they did not really like having their teeth brushed.


My son has sensory issues and hates the feel of bubbles in the mouth. He brushes with that pink kiddie mouthwash stuff on his brush. 


My three year old likes me to scream while she brushes. "Haha we're hiding in the teeth. Yummy teeth. Oh no, here comes the toothbrush .… Aaaaaahhhh, helllp, noooooo, noooooooooo! We'll hide on the top teeth! No, she's on to us! Arrrgh!" And on like that for however long it takes to get the job done, or until she gets bored. It works best if I really ham it up. Alternatively, brushing while listening to or singing Weird Al Yankovic's "Microscopic Bacteria" is entertaining and motivating.


I read somewhere recently (I think ... I don't think I came up with this one on my own) that someone suggested looking for foods in the mouth. I brush Storm's teeth on the bed (very rarely in the bathroom, because he prefers lying in bed) and just have an overhead light, so sometimes it's hard to see. Recently, I started telling him if he opened wide enough, maybe I could see all the way down to his stomach to see what he ate for dinner -- that did the trick. So, I rattle off things I remember him eating, ask about stuff if I need more time or forgot and it works wonders. Silly comments like "Look at all those pieces of hot dog!" or "Do I see a tiny bit of grape in there?... Yes, I think I do!". Sometimes, when I'm finished brushing his teeth, he'll ask to brush mine. Wyl (9), seems to like company when he brushes.


I was expecting but didn't see it, the use of a water pick. That is what my youngest is using these days. She puts toothpaste in her mouth and kind of chews it around and then uses the water pick to spray off food and get in between teeth. She refuses to use a toothbrush, she really dislikes brushing. We've tried all kinds of toothbrushes and toothpastes, and none of them really got her into brushing her teeth. The water pick works great.


We also use the fluoride free Tom's apricot toothpaste, since she doesn't like any of the other flavors. The fluoride free Tom's strawberry was her favorite but we can't find it anymore, it has banana and fluoride in it now and is no longer enjoyed.

Jenny Cyphers

I have always looked for cartoon characters in my kids mouth while I brush their teeth. We have looked for Spider-man, Batman, Star Wars characters, Backyardigans, etc. Sometimes it gets a little difficult because the kids giggle so much : ) In the beginning I didn't even called it brushing teeth. I make up some sort of silly name for it, and I very dramatically "play" with their teeth and the left over "food" in their mouth. Tooth brushing is just another playful moment in our house.

Jeanette Crichton

It is interesting, I've just been doing a quick and cursory exploration of the world of oral bacteria via google and found this: Prevention - Dental Caries which shows that the earlier you get mutans streptococci the more prone to caries/cavities you are, with absolutely no discussion of how much you brush or floss your teeth. Here's an abstract about the natural history of Streptoccus sanguinis (a benign oral bacteria) Natural History of Streptococcus sanguinis in the Oral Cavity of Infants: Evidence for a Discrete Window of Infectivity I think I like it most because it refers to oral bacteria as "indigenous biota of the human oral cavity". Oh, how I love science!! There is this talk abstract: Colonization of mutans streptococci in caries-free Swedish teenagers which found no difference in colonization of mutans streptococci in caries free Swedish teenagers and caries prevalent Swedish teenagers. Similar finding here: Colonization with Mutans Streptococci and Lactobacilli and the Caries Experience of Children after the Age of Five with the added comment that it isn't diet that is doing it. Oh, I could do this for a long time.


It's really cool. It isn't scary, or something to be used to scare a child with, they are cavities, holes in your teeth caused by acids. The bacteria, the indigenous biota, are just living there, they are indigenous. Well, they are indigenous from about 30 months old, on average. Yes, toothbrushing makes a difference Caries Research 1999 Vol. 33, No. 2 (an old paper, 1999, but cool for the British social class stuff -- I'm assuming that's what the manual versus non-manual mention is about). A big difference. But it isn't going to keep you clear of caries if you are prone to getting them.


Hard cheese is supposed to be quite good for regulating the population of mutans streptococci, quick search shows that lactobacilli tends to keep populations of mutans streptococci in check. Xylitol has been shown to reduce plaque and when mother's chew it for the first couple of years of their child's life the colonization of the child's teeth by mutans streptococci is delayed and thus caries are less likely to occur.

Schuyler Waynforth

It turned out that he just didn't like the toothpaste. He had switched from a fruit flavored kid toothpaste to a minty adult paste. He discovered that he hates mint, but didn't realize that he could just switch back to his old toothpaste. Now he uses that Crest citrus flavor, which has some mint in it, but he doesn't seem to mind that.

Carron Armstrong

Isn't it funny when a really big deal turns out to be about something so simple?!? I laughed when I read this, because a few weeks ago Jade (one of my 3 1/2 year old twin girls) told me she didn't ever want to brush because the toothpaste is 'howibwe' … it was kids minty something or other. After she told me that we went out and found Tom's apricot flavour (tastes like jam) and she's been brushing non-stop ever since. Oh, and they also got to pick out a fancy motorized Dora toothbrush which delights them to no end :).

Jodi Bezzola

How about using xylitol mints and gum instead of brushing?? check

Alex Polikowsky

Or peelu gum...

Zoa Conner

If your child has weak enamel over-brushing can CAUSE cavities as well. I have strong enamel and take horrid care of my teeth. I just turned 37 and have no cavities. Both my parents have full dentures and both brothers have mouthes full of fillings. But I can't for the life of me see telling a child that the "bugs" will bore through the teeth until the child screams in pain will bring you closer or make the child think you are nice. FWIW I'd leave the kid alone. Tell the kid about brushing, why we do it and then leave it be. My kids are not forced to brush their teeth. But they have several flavors of toothpaste, different brushes, and gauze pads to use instead of brushes if they wish. It's their mouth … I leave them alone about it.

Karen Swanay

The point was that it often doesn't help to overstate consequences to children, because it can erode trust if the outcome isn't what Mom said it would be. I think the use of color tablets or other items might be great for some people! The question is whether you should tell children they'll get cavities and pain if they don't brush.


Because some will rarely brush and never get a cavity, others will brush faithfully and get lots! We don't want to mislead children in order to get them to do something. That's all.


To eat an apple or carrot or piece of fullcorn bread [bread made of whole corn grain] cleanses the teeth good enough.

Ulrike Haupt

I have flossed and brushed every day for my entire 41 year old life, and yet every trip to the dentist shows up yet another cavity or some other form of decay. It's just the way I'm built. My husband on the other hand never flosses, never brushes at night and has never had a cavity.

Jodi Bezzola

I have a child in the exact situation ... I made sure to provide lots of implements ... interesting power brushes, milder toothpaste (or even no toothpaste!) and just modeled good dental hygiene. Making it a battle isn't going to accomplish much other than proving to him that you don't trust him and that he can't trust you. Forcing a child who has what sounds like sensory issues and has a history of dental issues is really setting him up for difficulty. My son has gotten better about brushing now that he's noticed that sometimes people have bad breath ... he's 6 now and will say "wow mom you need to brush" I always say "yes I had garlic for dinner " hoping that he will connect that some foods make your breath stinkier and that some things like poppy seeds, strawberries, blueberries etc make your teeth look icky if you don't brush. Ultimately I leave it up to him .… I can fix his teeth but his spirit might be trickier!

Lisa B

I just hand them their toothbrushes with toothpaste on them in the tub and they brush. I suggest teeth brushing every morning/every evening and sometimes they go for it and sometimes they don't.


I am 42. I can eat as much or as little as I please, of whatever I please. I can brush my teeth or not. I can even DRIVE to the fast-food place when I want, and eat what I want there. I'm the one with the debit card, so I can buy what I choose at the grocery store. Why aren't I choosing only sweets and Doritos, and filling my cart with stuff that's barely food? Because I prefer how I feel when I eat food as close to the source as possible, mindfully. I feel better when I eat that way. Why do I brush my teeth? Because my mouth feels better when I do, and actually, I've found my mood is better, too. I found that out by not brushing my teeth. I had to give myself total freedom when we started this journey, too. Now - everything is a choice. Everything. I don't do things because my mom told me it would be good for me. I do things because I WANT to, because of how my choices make me feel.


When I was a kid I remember being sent to brush my teeth alone and it took hours. Okay, not really ;-) It felt like hours!


So what I did with my daughter was to do it with her. We talked and joked. I made sure she had a brush and toothpaste she liked. I'm sure I must have mentioned preventing cavities in there at some point. Eventually it became automatic. Sometimes she would say she didn't feel like brushing. I'd say don't. And she'd say what if I get a cavity and we'd talk about the difference between habitually not brushing and skipping once. I can't remember her choosing not to brush but it would have been okay if she had.


For brushing teeth we've made it as easy as possible. We used to brush our teeth together, now the boys prefer to brush together. Some kids like a small mirror to watch themselves. Toothbrushes and toothpaste can be moved. Another bathroom? Kitchen sink? We also let the kids pick out their brushes. Right now they really like their electric power ranger brushes! We also buy natural toothpaste (Tom's of Maine kids strawberry) which has a mild flavor they don't seem to mind. We also bought flossers, rather than using regular dental floss. My older son has had experience with cavities, so he doesn't seem to mind brushing and flossing so much anymore. for my younger one (3) as long as I don't push he will let me help him out once a week or so. the other times he does it himself. I know its not perfect, but we have sort of made a game with the "EEEE! AAAAAHHHH! OOOOHHHH!" mouth shapes. :-)


I encourage my girls to brush and buy them fun toothbrushes, child friendly floss, mouthwash etc. At their recent dental visits dd8 has 5 cavities she'll be going back to have filled and dd 5 has 3.


Now my autistic son who almost never allows us to brush his teeth went for his check-up last week and once again has 0 cavities.

Nicole Willoughby

We use non foaming, non fluoride toothpaste (no spitting required), so brushing and flossing teeth happens in bed, right before story. I read a story and maybe rub her back a bit, and she is out.


Xylitol -- All Natural Sweetener


"...Xylitol is a dentist's dream. It reverses all these destructive effects of sugar on oral health. Xylitol is non-fermentable and therefore cannot be converted to acids by oral bacteria, thus it helps to restore a proper alkaline/acid balance in the mouth. This alkaline environment is inhospitable to all the destructive bacteria, especially the worst variety, Streptococcus mutans. It also inhibits plaque formation...."

Alex Polikowsky

Ah, yes! My son frequently forgets where he was headed / what he was going to do and it happens with teeth brushing, too. There is much less stress if we go to do it together. I give him a piggyback ride to the bathroom, sometimes he brushes his teeth and sometimes he wants me to do it. I don't mind helping him brush at all, I think it helps him figure out the sensations and movements of what a good teeth brushing feels like. We talk about each part of his mouth and he asks questions, etc. Since he's fiercely independent in many ways, it's a treat for me to be able to do something for him. We pause to chit-chat and giggle. Sometimes we'll brush our teeth together or he'll want to brush mine for me.


If told him to go do it he'd make it halfway down the hallway and start playing. I'd get frustrated, remind him again, direct him toward the bathroom, spot him in the living room a few moments later and discover he still hadn't brushed his teeth. I'd send him down the hallway again with my patience rapidly decreasing, and so on until eventually I was close to yelling and all but dragging him into the bathroom or on the verge of making threats like "no bedtime story" etc.


There is a principal behind the act of teeth brushing - taking care of ourselves so we stay healthy. Both ways are trying to meet this goal. One way tries to figure out how to make it happen in the most joyful, non-coercive way. There are no commands, rules or punishments involved. It does, however, require me to be present and actively engaged with him to accomplish the brushing of teeth.


The other way is the opposite. It starts with me thinking I can issue a command and have it obeyed and that should be the extent of my involvement. Every time he needs redirecting my frustration level grows because I'm not suppose to have to intervene - I said "do it" and that should have been it. I choose to turn it into a battle of wills and to take his inability to complete the task on my timetable as a sign of disrespect.


Which way is respectful towards the child and is more pleasant for both of us? Which way is ultimately more hands-on? Which way honors the relationship?


Of course, I kindly remind him to brush his teeth


One alternative would be to talk about his breath without going straight to the solution - I forget that myself and tend to go straight to solutions. After all, my solutions are fabulous! Why wouldn't anyone just want me to tell them what to .... oh, oops.


Part of supporting autonomy is giving our kids the space to think of some of those fabulous solutions on their own - the other part is then being willing to help them problem-solve if those "solutions" aren't exactly what they hoped. To use a montessori truism: "kids learn to make decisions by making decisions" and that includes less than successful decisions, so they can experience the whole process with our support backing them up, and helping them figure out the "what now"? parts.


So, again I remind him to please brush his teeth. Sometimes, this happens several times.


Try starting the conversation in a different place - hey, guy, your breath is pretty stinky in the morning, but toothbrushing seems to be a hassle for you... can we find a better solution? If he's not used to this kind of problem solving (if mom jumps to solutions, why should he be?) he might need some prompting. Can you set up the toothbrushing somewhere different? Can y'all look into mouth rinses for first thing in the morning? Gum? A tongue scraper? Maybe y'all could look into some of the causes of bad-breath together and find yet more possibilities - like a change of night-time snacks, or more humidity in the bedroom or a nasal rinse? There are dozens of possible solutions to morning breath and creating a healthier mouth environment.


I suppose I could give up on working with him


Sometimes a break is a valuable solution to explore. Its good to "red flag" situations where you seem to come up with only two options, though. That's often a good sign that you've gotten stuck in your thinking - and a good opportunity to go to your kids and say "hey, I can't figure this one out, lets put our heads together". And if that doesn't work, well, that's one of the things these boards are great for - seeing a bunch of different perspectives and possibilities.


Actually, this [teeth rotting because of not brushing] is not true. Tooth rot has more to do with a genetic roll of the dice than care. I am 36 yrs old and have on paper taken horrible care of my teeth. As a child I did not brush for MONTHS. Even now, I do not brush twice a day (mostly because I have mouth ulcers and at times it's too painful to brush.) I have NO cavities. No rot, no periodontal disease. Both my brothers take much better care of their teeth but they have tons of fillings. I really think it's just a matter of chance. So as uptight as I am about everything else still on tooth brushing I sort of leave it alone. I remind every now and again "Hey, have you brushed your teeth lately?" But I don't ever bug them about it.


You can give other things a try...toothbrushes that make music, light up, bubblegum toothpaste. Offer different options perhaps. Also gauze on a finger tip works too. Not as good as a brushing but better than nothing.

Karen Swanay

Absolutely. My grandmother used to say, "You either got good spit or bad spit." I brush my teeth after every meal. I even carry a toothbrush and toothpaste in my purse and have been know to give myself a quick brush in the car. Last year I had to have 4 root canals and 3 cavities fixed! My husband usually brushes once a day, sometimes twice and very seldom has any problems. I can only remember him having one cavity in the last 10 years. My dd was tremendously influenced by our last trip to the dentist. He is very good with children and took the time to show her with a plastic model how to brush most effectively. He talked to her on her level and explained all about dental care. I have also been able to find cute little books about dental care that my kids enjoyed. This helped a great deal. Sometimes if we are going out I will ask them if they remembered to brush and try to remind them before bed but other than that I don't worry too much about it. My own experiences have shown me that it doesn't make a whole lot of difference in how many dental problems a person has.


I do agree with you by the way. I have one cavity and have not taken the best care of my teeth. My father is the same way, and I'm pretty sure genetically I got his teeth. Both of my girls are adopted. My 9 year old has the worst teeth ever. I lost count a long time ago on the number of cavities she has. We go to the dentist every six months and she has anywhere from 2-4 cavities every time, and she DOES brush her teeth. Now my 7 year old is the one that does not brush her teeth. She only has 1 cavity so far, but really I have no history on how her birth parents teeth were.


I've made teeth brushing a priority. I've never forced it, EVER. I've only made it fun and since I model good oral hygiene habits myself, they seem to be fine with it. I've had at least 4 friends whose children (all of whom were under the age of three) had to be put under to have cavities filled. One girl's teeth were literally crumbling out of her mouth. None of these parents practiced consistent toothbrushing. If my child starts to resist teethbrushing? Well, I guess I'll have to lighten up a bit and hope for the best. I'd buy different kinds of toothbrushes (electric do a better job in a shorter time), and toothpastes. I'd hope they'd go to the dentist so they'd get cleaned good at least twice a year! I'd continue to model good oral hygiene habits.



For us, DS would sometimes comment on my (or DH's) "morning breath" by saying our breath was "hot" and we'd go brush. So, when his breath gets "hot", I'll mention it and ask if he wants help or wants to do it himself (he's 9). I think that's another big area of the situation too - just because a child is 6 or 7 or 8 or whatever doesn't mean they "have to" brush on their own by themselves in the bathroom. Sometimes we've had three tiered brushing action with DS, then me looking over him into the mirror and DH looking over my head (which usually occasions lots of silliness BTW). Often, DS will request I do the brushing for him, so I do. Sometimes we'll take the toothbrush, a small cup of water to rinse and another cup to spit into (and a small washcloth) into the other room and brushing occurs while watching TV. Sometimes brushing doesn't occur before bed and after breakfast but at other times of the day when there's a convenient 'pause' in the activity level of the day and that's cool too.



One thing I did was buy the ACT fluoride treatment, which they like to use, and I feel like at least they're strengthening their teeth even if they don't brush as well. Eating apples and cheese is supposed to be good, as well as a glass of water after meals. We also play dentist where we take turns brushing each other's teeth. I'll just say that it's been a while and ask if they want to play dentist. We've also experimented with brushes and pastes. For while, Breanna would let us use a washcloth to clean her teeth, it works as well without all the overwhelming sensory issues of the hundred bristles and toothpaste flavor.


There are things you can do besides actually brushing teeth: use Dr. Ray's Spiffies tooth wipes. These are individually foil-wrapped wet wipes for teeth that have xylitol in them. My younger ones chew them like gum and then spit them out. The great thing about these is you can carry them around with you - she can clean her teeth whenever she gets the urge.


She can also rinse her mouth with a baking soda or xylitol wash. Some foods, such as cheese, are good for teeth. She can chew xylitol gum or eat xylitol mints.


Half of our family (my sons and I) have the strep mutans bacteria that causes early childhood caries (ECC). My sons both had partial bridges by the time they were two. By the time my youngest was two, he had 6 teeth pulled and had two lower molar crowns. I could visibly see the teeth dissolving over a two week period. I brush, floss, and still was going in for a cavity repair every month or two.


One of the changes we made was to brush before instead of after eating. The bacteria must come in contact with carbohydrates to acidify; even brushing immediately after eating allows the bacteria to acidify. By brushing before eating one removes the bacterial plaque, which takes twenty-four hours to recolonize. We also eat foods to remineralize our teeth and take cod liver oil, and use xylitol toothpaste and products.


My youngest has not had a single cavity in two years. One eye tooth that had begun calcifying when we made our changes - has not progressed AT ALL into any decay.


We do not have any resistance to tooth brushing, is just part of our routine like washing hands after using the bathroom. We keep toothbrushes in the kitchen, the bathroom, and the car, for convenience. My boys lay on the bed at night and "mommy robot" brings the robot brush - or they are frozen and the tooth brush unfreezes them - whatever game they invent, I will do.


My youngest has some sensory issues and doesn't like brushing very often. He also has teeth that aren't especially healthy. We found this mouthwash that has xylitol and no alcohol, so he loves it. We also keep baking soda around.....


I have one kid who neglected his teeth a lot and rarely gets a cavity. I have another who is a good brusher and has had lots and lots of dental issues starting when she was two. It does seem to be a bit of a roll of the dice. Some things that helped here: I offer a small piece of cheddar cheese at bed time to help remedy the PH of her mouth. My kids like it and it is a really good way to keep the acid down. Also, there are so many cool toothbrushes and flavors of toothpaste and stuff, now and then we all go get new ones. It's always fun. In fact we were at Target today and we each got a new fancy spinning toothbrush and I bought a different flavor paste for each kid. I spent more than I normally would but they all had a blast and they were excited to try it out when we got home.


Someone, I can't remember who, suggested: Let the child brush your teeth. Then ask if you can brush his. Be okay if he says no.


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