We have had terrible troubles getting our 3-year-old son to brush his teeth. There was a time when I was absolutely despairing it had become such a battle in our house. It didn’t help as he had a fall at nursery and chipped his tooth, but it had been pretty bad before. We had got to the place where we had to hold him down to brush his teeth and he would scream, hit, kick and spit to try and get us to stop it. It came to a point where my husband and I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was quite clear it was causing our son too much distress and it just felt wrong.
It’s been a journey for us trying to get him to brush his teeth. We’ve tried all sorts of different things, I’ve Googled my life away trying to see what works and what does not work. I also contacted up my dentist in a total stress one day and asked them for guidance and they were very helpful with some tips and guidance. So my trips around the internet have shown me that this is a common problem, and I thought I would first share a few things we have tried and what has worked.
Bo actually hated these and spat them out straight away, but I have heard they work for other children.
Electric vs Manual
When children are over 3 they can have an electric toothbrush, try both and see which your child prefers. Our son prefers a manual toothbrush as he finds the vibrations on an electric too intense.
A Special Trip to Choose Their Own Toothbrush
This was actually a real winner and really helped us. I took Bo on a trip to the shops all on his own (without his siblings) and he was able to look over all of the children’s toothbrushes and see which one he would liked, which engaged him in the journey and it was something that he liked and had picked.
Different Flavour Toothpaste
We’ve settled on a favourite flavour now, but it was a bit trial and error and there was a time I had to keep two flavours in as he would want a different one on different days. A lot of children find minty toothpaste too intense and prefer fruity. You can even buy flavourless toothpaste.
Brushing with a Muslin Cloth
This was a last resort on bad days, when he was being very funny about bristles on his teeth. I would put toothpaste on a muslin cloth and rub it over his teeth instead. Be prepared for bitten fingers though, which has happened on occasion!
Phone Apps / Blippi / Hey Duggee Toothbrush Song
There are all sorts of toothbrushing apps you can get to help with toothbushing with timers and brush-along techniques. Not a lot of these helped to be honest. The two that were the most helpful for us are the Blippi toothbrush song on YouTube, it also helped up to conversations about germs in our mouth and on our teeth. And the Hey Duggee Toothbrush song, I would put either of these on my phone for him to watch while we were brushing teeth together.
Books on Teeth Brushing
I always think books are a great way to help children to understand something, Bo is a bit Hey Duggee fan so we got him the teethbrushing badge book (affiliate link) and ready it through with him to help understand why teethbrushing is important. But there are lots to choose from.
Photos of Bad Teeth
I’m on the fence as to whether this is the right thing to do or not. I did it because I was getting desperate for Bo to understand why we need to do this and it had been suggested a couple of times. I found pictures of bad and rotting teeth and showed him what could happen if he didn’t look after his teeth. It upset him, we talked about it, but I’m not sure this is really the right tactic.
This is an toothbrush recommended for autistic children. It has three sides to brush the top and both sides of the tooth at the same time, to enable you to brush teeth more quickly. You can buy them on amazon here (affiliate link). A lot of people have great success with these brushes, Bo unfortunately hated it.
Stopping All Sugary Foods and Treats
We did take away all treats, cakes, sweets, fruit juice unless he brushed his teeth. I can’t say I was hugely comfortable with this as I think food as a punishment is not great and doesn’t help a child build a healthy relationship with food. But as I think I have made clear this has been a long journey for us and we have been willing to try everything. In the end he would just say ok I don’t want to brush my teeth, no cake so it didn’t work anyway.
Step Back From the Battle
When I got to the end of my tether I contacted the dentist and this is what they suggested. To step back from the battle, that it had become a conflict between Bo and us and we needed to break away from it. They suggested not brushing his teeth at all, which I found REALLY HARD stressing about his teeth rotting. We were told to limit his sugar consumption, even fruit and allow him to brush his own teeth and set his own pace every morning and night. Praising him really highly when he did.
This worked and it didn’t. As I suspected Bo would quite happily not brush his teeth… ever. But it did help that it diffused the battle and screaming between him and us and enabled us all to come at it again from a better place. To be calmer and Bo was calmer about it too, knowing that teethbrushing time was a nicer time than it was before.
A reward chart didn’t work because all you could see was the days that Bo did not brush his teeth. It was like a sea of negative. So we tried a pebble jar instead. Every time that Bo brushed his teeth he put a pebble into a pot and he could see the pebbles growing and it was a positive experience.
But, he doesn’t always engage, sometimes the hatred of the toothbrush is greater than the lure of a pebble. What helped to make this work was to get him to choose a toy he really wanted. He choose it, I printed off a photo of it and I stuck it on the pebble pot, so he was filling in the pot to get the really exciting toy (a £20 transformer). As the pot got fuller he got more and more engaged and tried really hard.
Now he’s won the transformer it has got a bit harder. He loves a magazine every week, so we’ve switched this up for 7 pebbles a week (once a day brushing) = a new magazine. But this week it hasn’t worked so I may have to come up with a new strategy or incentive. I think it’s all about getting the incentive and engagement right here.
In several groups I have seen u-shaped toothbrushes and u-shaped electric toothbrushes recommended. I’ve done some research on this and had a brief chat to the dentist about this and the evidence is that these don’t brush teeth very well at all. We’re back at the dentist in November, so I am going to have a chat about them again then and I will update here. But for this reason I have tried to avoid them for the moment, but I haven’t ruled them out.
What Really Worked For Us
In all honesty it was a combination of things that have worked for us. Patience and perseverence too. It also helped to understand he wasn’t refusing to be naughty. On a sensory level he absolutely hates having his teeth brushed, the feeling and the texture and some days he can’t stand it.
The youtube videos and books helped him to understand why he needed to brush his teeth. He loved choosing his own toothbrush and still loves the one he chose – he will occasionally play with it himself and pretend to brush, which I encourage.
The pebble jar is a good incentive, if he’s engaged enough. I’m going to play around with different reward gifts on this one.
The game changer was taking a step back like the dentist suggested, I hated not brushing his teeth for a short period. It was about two weeks. In the end his breath was really gross and then he threw up and had sick breath and my husband and I decided we need to take a new approach. Instead of pinning him down he had a cuddle with Dad who chatted to him and reassured him while I brushed his teeth. We probably did this for another two weeks before he was ready to let me brush his teeth without running away.
It’s still a work in progress and we have to be inventive and reassure him. He understands that he has to brush his teeth, but sometimes the hatred of the toothbrush over rules everything. If he’s really distressed I let it go, but he is canny and I cannot do this too much or if he had his way we would go back to never ever brushing them. At the moment we do a combination of hugging him and him allowing us to brush his teeth for a pebble. I think we are going to have to persevere and change things up, but I can say that things are so much better than they were in the early summer.
If you’re in the same position I hope that some of the tips help you.