Expert Advice: Brushing Teeth Without a Battle

Well, without an EPIC battle, anyway Read more

brushing teeth without a fight, toddler tips

There is no moment of my morning that takes as much cajoling, motherly patience and straight-up grit as tooth-brushing time. Trying to teach a wiggly two-year-old how to brush his own teeth is ALMOST as trying as brushing your wiggly two-year-old’s teeth yourself — thus I am constantly on the hunt for tips and tricks that make any of it a little easier. Enter, Kara Hershey, a dental hygienist with more than a decade’s worth of experience who has worked with patients ranging from 5 months to 112 years. (I met her at my awesome dentist’s office — that’s Philly Smiles in Rittenhouse, if you’re dentist shopping.) Kara has worked in public health educating children, and worked with disabled children at the dental clinic at Children’s Hospital, as well as serving on the ADHA board in Washington, D.C. She also helps educate local mommy-and-me groups on oral health. So in short: She’s expert, people … and here, she’s offering up some of her pro tips.

First and foremost: How do you brush a kid’s teeth if he isn’t exactly … cooperative? Some tips here would be great.
–Get them a fun toothbrush. Try Tooth Tunes electric brush. (The song is a nice two-minute timer for kids). My favorite is the Dr. Fresh Frefly brush: The light is actually a minute timer, so they brush until it shuts off. Very fun to play with in the dark.
–Brush together! Some kids do better if they are watching you. My niece likes to brush with me since we have the same electric brush (kids’ Sonicare and my Sonicare). This way I can make sure she is doing a good job, and when I’m finished I will brush her again.
–Most parents have better luck brushing teeth while the kids are in the bathtub — they usually enjoy being in water, and you can make a mess without a problem.
–As a parent, the easiest way to brush their teeth is laying a child’s head in your lap. You’ll have a better view and less of a struggle. I actually just did this on my friend’s 18-month-old, and it worked perfectly.
–Also, you can distract with apps. Disney Magic Timer App uncovers a photo with a toothbrush after 2 minutes. They can watch while they brush, but only twice per day… the app keeps track! Sesame Street also has a fun video they can brush along to.

How old should a kid be when they start brushing themselves? And how can you encourage them as they learn?
I would prefer that parents still check their kids up to age 8. Let’s be honest, there are adults who still can’t properly brush their teeth. Hopefully, they master it by age 6, but I would always do a quick run through OR have them use mouthwash after. The biggest thing is time. Most patients only brush for 30 seconds; kids do about 10 seconds. Ideally, we want 2 full minutes twice a day. Electric brushes make everything better. It will do the job for you which will give you better results.
   Again, it helps if you make it fun. Let them pick our their own toothbrushes so they get excited. Disney has partnered with dental companies to make products that appeal to children. Frozen mouthwash was a huge hit with my niece.They even make flavored floss piks for children that taste delicious.
   As a child, we had a sticker chart as a reward for brushing. When we got older, our mom would hang up photos of football players with missing teeth on the bathroom mirror — a great motivator to brush better. You can always resort to threats when they become teenagers. My dad told us we would have to pay for our cavities to be filled. The main thing I tell patients? Just do it — whether by bribery or by force, it has to get done.

What’s the deal on toothpaste? Fluoride is okay or not okay for little ones?
   The rule is that when the first tooth erupts you start brushing. Orajel makes a nice training toothpaste without fluoride. You generally do not start using fluoride toothpaste until the child can spit without swallowing. Fluoride can make kids sick if too much is ingested. I have my patients practice spitting with a cup of water until the parent feels comfortable then you can begin with toothpaste.
   The ADA recommends kids UNDER 3 use a rice sized amount of fluoride toothpaste or less. Ages 3 to 6 should use NO more than a pea sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Each child is very different. Some are more advances, and some take longer to grasp the spitting concept. I generally like all of Colgate’s toothpaste products. Be careful with flavored fluoride toothpaste; kids love the taste and will try to eat it. I would keep the toothpaste out of their reach so they don’t grab more.

Any foods or drinks to avoid entirely on account of the teeth?
Juice is actually really bad for teeth due to the sugar content, so you should try to limit the amount they drink. Pleeeeeease don’t give your kids soda. Try to keep candy to a minimum. Sticky fruit snacks are also not ideal. If they do have anything bad, try to rinse out with water first and definitely brush well before bed.

I think everyone knows by now that giving a baby a bottle to suck on in the crib at bedtime is bad for teeth. Any other bad habits we should avoid?
My other huge issue is pacifiers or finger sucking. When kids do this, it pushes out the front teeth and causes an open bite. This is very hard to correct with orthodontics. My friend went through braces three times and couldn’t correct hers. Try to stop all oral habits by 2 years old … 3 at the latest!

Any tips for that first trip to the dentist? Any good ways of calming the kid down, or preparing her for the trip?
My favorite thing to do is have my patients bring their kids with them. I like to get the child involved by giving them gloves and a mask to make it a fun experience. Usually they have so much fun they want to jump in and have a turn. But not all dental offices are good with kids, so ask first. Also, if they’re scared, it’s sometimes easier to have your child sit on your lap in the chair during their first visit.
   The earlier you bring them in the better. The ADA now recommends the first dental visit should be before their first birthday. They will at least get an exam to see how you are doing at home, check for decay and answer any questions. I have done cleanings on 8-month-old patients who sat in the chair by themselves, so it can be done!


Hey moms! Want to book Kara for your moms group? You can reach her here!