How To Brush Your Toddler’s Teeth (and Tips For When They Refuse)
If brushing your toddler’s teeth seems like a daunting task to you, don’t fret. You can do it, even if you have a stubborn child who’s equally convinced that toothbrushing is completely unnecessary.
And brushing your little one’s teeth correctly is definitely worthwhile. You’ll help set your child up for a healthy mouth and teach them the importance of this twice-daily ritual that can prevent tooth decay and cavities.
How to brush your toddler’s teeth, step-by-step
Step 1: Brace yourself. OK, just kidding. (Mostly.) Here’s how to make sure you’re ready to get going on brushing your toddler’s teeth in the easiest, most effective manner.
Step 1: Buy the necessary supplies
The first step is to pick out the right supplies. Make sure you have a child’s size toothbrush and children’s toothpaste ready to go. (More on that in a minute.)
Step 2: Coach your child about what’s going to happen
Some kids like to know what to expect, so go ahead and tell them what you’re going to be doing.
It might even help to read a fun book about toothbrushing beforehand. Does your kiddo love Blippi or Elmo? You and your child could watch a video or listen to one of their songs about toothbrushing to prepare for the event ahead.
Demonstrating on a doll can also make brushing more fun. Or check out the American Dental Association’s list of fun toothbrushing tunes for children.
Step 3: Prepare the toothbrush
Put a tiny dab of toothpaste on the toothbrush. If your child’s still under 3 years old, that dab doesn’t need to be any bigger than a grain of rice. Once they’re about 3 years old, a pea-sized dab is appropriate.
Also, before you put the toothbrush with toothpaste in your child’s mouth, remind them that they’re not supposed to swallow the toothpaste.
Step 4: Brush!
Time to brush those teeth! If your toddler is a “by myself!” kind of kid, let them give it a try first. Make sure you supervise them, though. Don’t leave the room while they work on brushing.
After they’ve done their part, you can take over. Make sure to gently brush the surface of all their teeth. Don’t skip the back teeth. In fact, talk to them about not forgetting those “hidden teeth.”
Step 5: Spit
This might get a little messy, but you don’t want your child to get in the habit of swallowing too much toothpaste.
The small smear of toothpaste your kiddo used when they were a baby was fairly harmless, but once they’re using a bit more, swallowing might cause an upset stomach, according to the National Capital Poison Center.
Encourage your child to learn how to spit by demonstrating it yourself.
Why brushing your toddler’s teeth is important
Here’s why brushing your toddler’s teeth is so critical: It prevents cavities. And cavities in young children are more common than you might realize.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cautions that 28 percent of children have at least one cavity by age 3 — and nearly half of all children have at least one cavity by age 5.
After your child eats lunch or a snack or drinks anything other than water, there’s a little residue left behind in their mouth. Bacteria in the mouth will feed on that residue, creating an acid that will wear away at the enamel on the teeth. The fluoride protects the teeth from that kind of potential damage.
In previous years, it was sometimes recommended to avoid fluoridated toothpaste before 2 years of age. But guidelines have changed to provide better cavity prevention.
The AAP recommends using a tiny bit of toothpaste with fluoride every day as soon as your child’s teeth begin to come in.
Timeline of children’s dental health milestones
Here’s a general time frame to help guide you in caring for your child’s teeth.
When your child is a baby, you can start by wiping their gums with a soft cloth twice a day. When the first teeth begin erupting, get a small, soft toothbrush and gently brush those tiny little teeth with a smear of fluoridated toothpaste.
First dental visit
In fact, if your child develops teeth early, you might see a dentist even earlier. After all, once your child has teeth, they can get cavities in those teeth.
First toothpaste use
You can start using a tiny bit of fluoride toothpaste — what some experts call “a smear” — on your child’s teeth when they appear. When your kiddo’s about 3 years old, you can use the pea-sized dab.
Full set of baby teeth
Your child’s first precious tooth will probably erupt around 6 months of age, although it can certainly vary from child to child. Then it will likely be a steady stream of pearly white primary (baby) teeth poking up through your child’s gums for a while.
Your child will probably have all 20 baby teeth by about 3 years old. Make it a habit to take them to see a dentist twice a year to keep those teeth in tip-top shape.
Brushing on their own
There’s really no hard-and-fast rule about when a child is ready to brush their own teeth.
They might be ready to do so around 6 years old. Or they might need supervision for a little while longer, especially if the dentist notices some signs of tooth decay developing. Talk with your child’s dentist and ask them for some guidance.
Choosing a toothpaste and toothbrush
You may have your own favorite toothpaste, but it’s a good idea to buy a children’s toothpaste for your toddler to use — and make sure it contains fluoride.
You know your child’s tastes, so check out the various flavors in the toothpaste aisle and select a children’s toothpaste that you think will appeal to them. It might be watermelon flavored or maybe even bubblegum flavored. Or, if you’re like a lot of parents, you know it’s important to choose the tube with the princesses on it — or the cars.
And don’t forget the toothbrush. Pick one with a small head and soft bristles. Consider asking your child if they have a preference for toothbrush color, since having their buy-in to the whole process can go a long way.
Other tips for brushing your toddler’s teeth
If your tot readily cooperates with toothbrushing after breakfast and before bed each day, congratulations! If your child is perhaps not so into it, you may need to get a little, well, strategic. Here are a few tips to making oral hygiene a little easier on the both of you:
- Make it fun. Sing songs, tell stories — anything to make it a little more enjoyable.
- Stick to a routine. Children often do better when they know what to expect. Sticking to a routine can give them a sense of normalcy.
- Use a sticker chart or other incentives. Find an easy way to celebrate each time your child brushes their teeth until it’s an ingrained habit. This approach also works well for potty training in many children.
- Brush your teeth at the same time. Some kids like to imitate Mom or Dad. Watching you brush your teeth might inspire them to brush their own.
The bottom line
Don’t get intimidated by the prospect of brushing your toddler’s teeth. They’ll catch on after a while, and it’ll probably get easier as they get older. You may still spend the next however-many-years asking your child, “Did you brush your teeth?” But at least you’ve given them a solid introduction to the importance of good oral hygiene.