|Subject: Toddler resists tooth-brushing
My son, Adam, will be 3 in a couple of months. I work outside
the home as a teacher, but I am still nursing him, he sleeps with my
husband and me, we try to be gentle with him during tantrum-like
behavior, and my mom (a very loving grandma) watches him during the
day. He is a wonderful child with a lot of personality. He, of
course, will scream when he can't have something or do something he
wants. Most of the time he is able to direct his play and activities
during the day. I also know that children are ready for various
things at different times.
I am a bit worried about him not brushing his teeth since I
have noticed a line of what I guess is plaque going across his teeth
near his gums. He does put the toothbrush in his mouth and move it
around and he sees us brush our teeth. He will not let me brush his
teeth for him. I thought I might try to wipe or brush his teeth
after he nurses to sleep in my lap sometimes (that is how I get his
nose clean!). I wondered if you had any other suggestions for me.
I know first-hand how challenging it can be when a child resists
doing something that we want him to do or feel that he needs to do.
Even parents who understand the importance of respecting their
child's autonomy will sometimes find a real conflict between what
they feel the child needs to do and what the child wants to do,
especially where there are health or safety factors. Because Adam is
not yet verbalizing his feelings clearly, that makes it even harder
to analyze the problem and to solve it.
If a child resists tooth-brushing, what is he saying? There are
so many possibilities here. He may be saying that he doesn't like
the look of the toothbrush, or the flavor of the toothpaste (he may
even have a hidden allergy to one of its components). He may have
swallowed toothpaste once and is afraid it will happen again. His
gums may be hurting because a tooth is coming in (have they all come
in yet?) Perhaps tooth-brushing is becoming an issue and he doesn't
like the feeling of being "on the spot". He may not
understand why brushing is so important (this connection can be
difficult to make at such a young age). He may simply not understand
how to brush his teeth and feels confused about how to do it.
Before there is clear verbalization, it's all guesswork. Physical
forms of communication, such as pointing and facial expressions, can
be helpful, but there is a wide range here too as to how
demonstrative a child will be when they don't know the words to use.
One child will pull a parent to the front door and tug on the
doorknob to let us know they want to go outside. Another child will
look out the window with his hands in his pockets! Even the most
closely-bonded parent can be left to wonder what is being
So we are left with guesses and possible options to try. As I
suggested earlier, you could try a new toothbrush or toothpaste,
especially ones that he himself has chosen. To avoid possible
allergy-related resistance, you could try a toothpaste that has no
food color, sugar, or chemicals. One we like is called Dabur. Or try
the new Soladey2 toothbrush from Japan (carried at some health food
stores) that we have also used – it doesn't require toothpaste and
is marketed as "the most efficient plaque reducing
Adding fun to a job always makes it easier for a child. Have you
tried a dentist kit? He could be the dentist with you as the
patient, and then you might be able to switch roles and brush his
teeth. It really is better in some ways for the parent to do the
brushing for a young child, because it will be more thorough, and
therefore can be done less often.
Some families make the job more fun by using an egg timer –
they and their child brush until the sand runs out. I've read of one
family who played "decay detective" by bringing several
kinds of food into the bathroom and eating one at a time, then
inspecting their teeth in the mirror. They would then brush and
re-inspect their teeth. When a child more clearly understands the
reason for brushing, it is usually easier to motivate them.
Some families find a friendly dentist willing to have the child
visit with no dental work, and no pressure on the child, just a
demonstration of brushing that he can watch. Finding such a dentist
now, and introducing him/her to Adam could be a big help later in
case any urgent work is needed. But be very careful here. Do a lot
of research first (La Leche League leaders may be one good
resource), visit the dentist by yourself before bringing your child,
and if you arrange a visit, make it absolutely clear that you will
be present at all times and that no work is to be done on this visit
even if the dentist happens to notice something. That way you can
make Adam the promise that the dentist will not be doing any work,
and keep that promise.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Brushing Well by Helen Frost
- Show Me Your Smile: A Visit to the Dentist
by Christine Ricci
- Dental tools (like the little mirror used for examining teeth)
can help a child to become comfortable with some of the items
he'll see at the dentist's office. Look for real ones, not toys.
Real tools are always more highly prized and used than toy ones.
I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have any more