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How to ACTUALLY get kids to brush their teeth


Hygienists and parents weigh in on this important-and sometimes frustrating-topic.Getting kids to brush their teeth-and to brush them properly-sure isn’t easy. It just isn’t high on their list of things they want to do in a day, and most would skip it all together if they could.

Getting kids to brush their teeth-and to brush them properly-sure isn’t easy. It just isn’t high on their list of things they want to do in a day, and most would skip it all together if they could.

Of course, kids typically don’t understand the consequences of ignoring their oral health. All they know is brushing isn’t exactly fun; it’s just another boring chore their parents want them to finish before bed or before they head off to school.

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That’s where oral health care professionals and parents come in. It’s important for you to work together to figure out ways to make kids actually want to brush their teeth. For the oral health care professional, that usually means educating the parents as well as the child and focusing on teaching them how to make brushing fun.

“Brushing is something they have to do, and kids don’t like that,” says Sarah Thiel, RDH, CEO and co-founder of CE Zoom. “Kids are kids and are going to do what they want, but I believe a lot of it is on the parent. If parents get lazy, kids can develop bad habits. You have to teach them. It’s not just about cavities, it’s about overall health. If they develop gingivitis, it can affect their whole system.”

It starts with the parents

Thiel spends a lot of time educating parents in her practice and wants them to be part of the appointment any time she’s working on a patient younger than 18. She shows them areas their child might be missing, and what those areas look like before they’re properly cleaned and what they look like after. She encourages parents to make a habit of checking their children’s teeth after they brush and to go back over any spots they might have missed.

Many parents are focused on the costs associated with dental issues their children develop, Thiel says. While that can be a motivating factor to get kids to brush-especially for teenage patients whose parents told them they’ll have to help cover the bill-it isn’t the most important. Sure, cost is part of the conversation, but Thiel focuses on educating parents about what cavities or other problems might mean for the child’s overall health.

“They’re always concerned their child is going to have cavities or have to get a shot, but most don’t realize the overall health issue,” she says. “If the child has an infection in their mouth, it’s more important to educate them about what can happen if the infection stays and spreads, and if they don’t keep their teeth clean. A lot of people forget our mouths are connected to our bodies, and bacteria in our mouth affects our heart and everything else.”  

Anastasia Turchetta, RDH, suggests you start the education as early as possible. Make sure moms-to-be understand how inflammation can affect their pregnancy and the importance of maintaining the child’s oral health once he or she is born. This includes educating the mom on how valuable baby teeth are, the possible consequences of not caring for those teeth and how to make proper nutritional choices.

Related reading: What parents NEED to know about keeping their children's teeth healthy

Find out what motivates the mom, Turchetta says, and she’ll be more likely to make oral health care a priority for both herself and her child.  

“Nutrition has to play a bigger role. It’s also important for moms to understand how effective tooth brushing is at removing plaque and how proper brushing will help ensure children don’t experience the pain of a toothache. They’ll have better grades and more social acceptance,” Turchetta says. “You set them up for success when you install the habit of brushing their teeth early. When a child lives in an environment where healthy choices are made for them at an early stage of life, they will embrace that habit as their own.”

Up next: How to make brushing fun...


Make it fun

No matter how much education you provide, it won’t do a lot of good if the child still doesn’t brush. For that to happen, you and the parents have to find a way to make brushing fun and something the child actually looks forward to each day.

One way to do this is to simply buy a new toothbrush, says Ethel Hagans, RDH. Let kids choose a toothbrush that features one of their favorite characters, maybe Spiderman or a Disney princess, and they’ll be much more likely to want to use it. Some brushes even play music, which helps keep kids engaged and brushing for the full two minutes. For older kids, encourage them to pick out the color they want or even suggest they try out an electric toothbrush.

It’s also important to find a toothpaste they like, Hagans says. Some of the minty pastes are just too harsh, making brushing an unpleasant experience. Recommend fruity flavors for children to try, or encourage parents to take them on a trip to the drugstore to pick out their paste and their brush.

More from the author: Are electric toothbrushes REALLY better than manual toothbrushes?

Brushing your teeth is not a chore, yet it can feel like one to a child, Turchetta says. Parents have the opportunity to spin this “chore” and score by helping kids make it a healthy habit. Start by acknowledging their success and the progress they make every time they brush. Create a goal for them to continue to reach.

For example, every time they brush for so many days in a row without being reminded, give them a sticker, money, a new toy or maybe a new pair of shoes, depending on their age and what motivates them. Who doesn’t like positive reinforcement over “nagging?”

Thiel sings songs with her 4-year-old son to get him excited about brushing. She lets him brush first, then she helps because he has a difficult time reaching his molars. They sing two songs, which not only makes brushing more fun, but it also helps ensure he brushes for the full two minutes.

And keep in mind brushing doesn’t only have to happen in the bathroom or at the end of the day when kids are tired, Turchetta says. Have kids brush their teeth while doing their homework, or keep a toothbrush in the kitchen. This makes it easy for kids to brush right after a meal without having to head to the bathroom.

Other ways to make kids want to brush

While educating parents and making brushing fun are important parts of getting kids to pick up that toothbrush, you have to spend time educating children as well, Thiel says. Thiel tells her younger patients about the bugs that live on their teeth. She shows them pictures of what those bugs look like and the damage they can cause. This works with younger kids who don’t like the idea of bugs living in their mouth, but it isn’t always effective with pre-teens and teenagers. With older kids, it’s better to focus on the painful shots they’ll want to avoid, and how bad breath and other dental issues might have a negative impact on their social lives and their academic performance in school.

Hagans focuses on complimenting older kids on their beautiful smile and how important brushing is to keeping their smile healthy and bright. With younger kids, she asks them about their favorite candy and explains that because the candy has so much sugar, they have to brush twice a day if they want to eat that candy. When she tells them, “If you do this, then you also must do that,” most kids understand.

No matter what age the child is, it’s important to realize they’re all different. What might work for one 6-year-old girl might not work for another. Focus on finding what motivates each child and brushing will become a habit he or she will enjoy rather than a chore he or she would rather skip.  

“You only get two sets of teeth in life,” Hagans says. “It’s good to start off doing as much as you can with your first set to develop that healthy brushing habit or technique, so that when you get to your second set you’re pretty much on track."

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