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Getting children to brush their teeth can sometimes be more akin to pulling teeth. If you’re having problems getting a child to brush regularly, the following advice may help you out.

Notice to parents: Before we get into these other suggestions, you should make sure that one of the reasons they don’t like to brush isn’t because it’s painful. If a child has an unaddressed cavity or other dental problem, brushing might hurt, and this can lead to a reluctance to do it.

Tips & suggestions for getting kids to brush their teeth

  1. Let them pick out a fancier toothbrush in their favorite color or cartoon character. Switching brushes every couple of months (something that is recommended anyway) can keep things exciting and new. Be sure to let them pick out their brush, since they’ll take more pride in their choice if they pick it out themselves.
  2. If your child seems to resist brushing, try switching to an electric toothbrush, which adds a fun factor to the process. Kids enjoy it because it’s like their own little tool they can use.
  3. Sample different toothpastes to see if there’s a flavor they like best.  Though most are essentially the same, each child’s tastebuds are unique, and some kids are turned off by a particular flavor.
  4. Make a habit of pointing out movie stars or other people on TV with wonderful teeth. Something along the lines of, “My, that lady on TV has a really lovely smile. I bet she takes good care of her teeth.” Don’t make it obvious or obnoxious, but make such comments consistently. Children learn to value what you value. If you subtly send the message that healthy white teeth are something to be admired, and that the way towards this goal is healthy oral hygiene, they’ll be more inclined to want to achieve this themselves.
  5. Praise them after brushing: “Let me see your pearls. Oh my gosh! Simply beautiful!” A simple praise such as this offers a reward that can make brushing seem worthwhile.
  6. Make it fun! Especially if you’re trying to get preschoolers to brush their teeth, create imaginary play scenarios around the process. You can call it “space paste” and talk like an astronaut might about “entering the black hole named Bobby’s mouth” and “ready to commence cleaning.” Or simply create a drama around the idea of cavity bugs invading planet tooth land and wreaking havoc on all the wonderful tooth fairy people that live there and how we need to annihilate all the cavity bugs to save the tooth fairy people.  Whatever silliness you can come up with will help kids see it as more of a game and less of a chore, and this can reap rewards for years to come.
  7. Emphasize the importance of teeth to the body, as outlined on our teaching kids about dental health page.
  8. Finally, make sure you are modeling the behavior by brushing your teeth in front of them. Walk out of the bathroom and make a point of letting them see you, and look as though you’re really enjoying it. Then talk about how nice and clean your mouth feels afterward. Children are wonderful mimics. Do this for a month or two, and they’ll be brushing enthusiastically in no time at all.

Should parents use rewards to get children to brush their teeth?

We would discourage the use of rewards or treats to encourage a child’s dental hygiene, for a couple of reasons. First, it can send the wrong message.  Hygiene is something kids should be doing as a matter of daily living, not something they’re paid to do. Bribing or threatening kids can therefore send the wrong message. There are many reasons we brush our teeth: to keep our teeth healthy, to have a great looking smile, to avoid painful cavities, and so on.  These are the real rewards you should focus on, not artificial ones. Plus you’ll eventually need to withdraw the rewards, which can cause problems later.

That said, parents are free to try a small reward system for younger children in order to develop the habit, just be sure to emphasize that this has an end date: you’re rewarding them to give them extra motivation so that they can get in the habit of brushing their teeth, and set up a specific time frame, such as two or three months, when the rewards will end. Once that happens, they’ll be expected to continue the habit on their own.

If you go this route, use some sort of calendar system in which kids get a sticker for each no-fuss brush day, which translates into a small reward at the end of the week. Be sure the reward is meaningful yet modest; the higher the bribe, the more problems you’ll have trying to withdraw it later.

Getting your kids to floss

  • When it comes to flossing, consider getting your child one of the big-handled, kid-friendly flossers.
  • Make sure children understand why we floss: it cleans the area where teeth are touching, so that we don’t get cavities in those tight places and have to our teeth drilled.

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