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Home Family Parenting Advice Toddler Toothbrushing—Good Parenting

Toddler Toothbrushing—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Any suggestions on how to tackle tooth brushing with a toddler? The pediatric dentist warned us that our son has a couple of tiny cavities! She said we can avoid fillings on his baby teeth with better brushing.


Dear Yikes,

Health and hygiene habits are important for many reasons, not the least of which are such undesirable consequences as you are hoping to avoid. As early as possible, a child should see that getting his teeth sufficiently brushed is something he can expect to happen as reliably as getting buckled up in his car seat. You have accepted the gravity of the dentist’s concern and by your actions, you will impress your son with the seriousness of raising the priority of getting his teeth as clean as they can be.

A Not Unpleasant Habit
Let’s start with making a fun routine out of tooth brushing. Take your pick: sing a silly song, wear a funny hat, have a spitting contest, add dance steps, or hide your child’s toothbrush and give him an easy clue to find it. If he likes having his picture taken, ask for an open mouth grin to celebrate each triumphant finish. Toddlers love routines, so just keep doing whichever goofy routine works best for the next year or so.

Make it an early part of the bedtime sequence, before fatigue takes over. If your son is usually asleep by 9 pm, schedule toothbrushing for 7:30 pm, followed by bath time, pajamas, a quick pick up of a few toys from the floor, animated readings of several good picture books, a gentle massage, declarations of infinite love, and lastly, a sweet lullaby.
Just be sure to have him (with some help from you) brushing long enough to be effective. The American Dental Association advises a two-minute brushing. So use a timer or sing a song that lasts a full two minutes. Talk with him beforehand about the song (or the timer), and the simple reason for this new procedure.

Toddlers are known for contrariness which is evidence of the developmental milestone of being aware of their own minds. So let your son exercise one or two of a wide range of choice options: which color toothbrush to use, which two-minute song you’ll sing, which section of his teeth he’ll start with, whether he brushes first or you brush first, or which cup for the rinse and spit, etc.

Monkey See Monkey Do
You can also offer that he choose a doll or stuffed animal to have its teeth brushed (or the grill on his toy truck). Obviously, the toys will have their own designated toy toothbrush, or just pretend with a finger. Use yourself as another model of good dental hygiene by brushing – and flossing – at the same time as your son. Flossing is a more difficult task, but just like toileting, if he sees his much admired parent doing it he will be motivated to one day follow suit.

You might ask the parent of one of his buddies to join you for breakfast one morning, followed by buddy tooth brushing!

In-Between Brushings
Dentists would like everyone to brush at least twice daily, and ideally after each meal or snack, however this isn’t always convenient. Try adding the habit of a swish and a spit with water, especially when your son is eating at home.

You Brush What You Eat
The chain of events that causes tooth decay is: food particles (notably sugars) are left on the teeth, bacteria eat the sugars, acid is produced by the bacteria, the acid removes minerals in a tooth’s protective enamel surface.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “foods that cling to your teeth for a long time — such as milk, ice cream, honey, sugar, soda, dried fruit, cake, cookies, hard candy and mints, dry cereal, and chips — are more likely to cause decay than foods that are easily washed away by saliva.”

You can reduce or eliminate the foods on the sticky, sugary list and instead offer your child anti-cavity food and drinks. Enjoy a good crunching of apples and or carrots, for example, or other fruits and vegetables with high fiber and high water contents. Water is reliably the best drink to flush away food debris from teeth. Add water to fruit juice to reduce its sugar content and avoid letting your son have soda as long as possible. Soda adds its own acid to work through tooth enamel. Milk is actually a teeth building food, as are other dairy foods such as yogurt and cheese; just don’t let them linger on the teeth. (A straw cuts contact time.) Leafy green veggies are another go-to food group for adding calcium to make strong teeth and bones.

Where’s the Fluoride?
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that fluoride is present to some degree in all water, originating in rocks. Some groundwater and natural springs have high levels of fluoride, although the average fluoride level in water is not enough to prevent tooth decay. In the interest of public health, fluoride has been added to public water sources since 1945 and is credited by the CDC with reducing cavities by 25% in communities that do this. Too much of a good thing may not be a good thing, so have your dentist advise you on whether your son is getting enough fluoride. If you have well water, she will likely recommend using toothpaste with fluoride added. Note that fluoride is not usually found in bottled water.

These will be lots of new habits for you and your son, but helping him learn to take good care of his teeth is something everyone can smile about.

Dr. Debbie

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

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