I hear from parents all the time, “Help, my child won’t brush her teeth!” Discover why and get 9 powerful tips to help your child move past the refusals, battles, and tantrums quick. Affiliate links used below.
It’s a non-negotiable.
It doesn’t matter how much your kid doesn’t like it.
They’ve got to do it.
Or, they’ll end up with dirty teeth filled with cavities in no time flat. You know that, and so you have the daily battle to get their teeth cleaned. But, that doesn’t make it any easier when they hate getting their teeth brushed.
Not only have I been there as a parent, as an occupational therapist, I’ve had a lot of families I’ve worked with (and my students) desperately tell me, “My child won’t brush her teeth!”
When a child doesn’t like to brush their teeth, it can turn into a daily battle that you both end up dreading.
But, I’ve got 9 different tips that can help your child learn to tolerate and maybe even enjoy this necessary daily activity. Before we get to them though, it’s really important that you’ve got a handle on why you’re child is refusing to brush their teeth…
Why Does Your Child Refuse to Brush Their Teeth?
As a parent, I’m always a little taken back when my child doesn’t do what they’re supposed to. Although I hate to admit it, my first response is usually feeling annoyed at the inconvenience.
Brushing their teeth is no exception. Two out of three of my kids went through a phase as toddlers when they would scream, run away from me, and then throw themselves on the ground as soon as I picked up the toothbrush.
Another one of those, “Why are you doing this to me” moments!
But, the truth is that there’s a reason they don’t like it.
My Child Won’t Brush Her Teeth… Because She’s a Toddler?
The first reason to consider why your child may not be brushing their teeth is if they are a toddler. It could be as simple as that. Toddlers want to keep moving and having to stand still while you brush their teeth for 2 minutes can seem like an eternity in a toddler’s mind.
If you’ve got a 1-3 year old, know this is probably part of the reason they hate getting their teeth brushed. Tips #2, #3, and #7 will be key in helping them accept brushing their teeth.
My Child Won’t Brush His Teeth… Because It Hurts or Feels Weird?
For older kids, and some toddlers, they’re refusing to brush their teeth because of how brushing their teeth feels. If your child is sensitive to sensations, tooth brushing can feel painful, uncomfortable, or even tickle.
This is hard for us to relate to because we brush our teeth everyday and it’s never painful.
But, kids haven’t had the long term exposure to it that we have. They aren’t desensitized to vigorous brushing.
Plus, this sensitivity is commonly associated with sensory issues or needs in kids. That doesn’t mean they need any sort of diagnosis, but it could mean that they’re experiencing sensations differently than most other kids.
It’s critical to be aware of and supportive of that difference.
If you aren’t sure if your child doesn’t like the feeling of brushing teeth, then ask them why they don’t like to brush their teeth. Make sure you ask at a time away from regular tooth brushing when emotions aren’t running high.
They might surprise you. Their response can give you a lot of insight.
If you know this is the reason your child hates brushing their teeth, than it can be improved. They can become desensitized, but it will take some time.
My Child Won’t Brush Her Teeth… Because of the Taste?
They also may not like the taste of the toothpaste, which is why it’s always a good idea to ask if they’d like to try another flavor. Then, let them pick out the type they think they’d like.
Even if taste doesn’t have a lot to do with it, asking them gives them a sense of control which will only help the situation
I did ask my kids.
I wanted to use a natural toothpaste, and had researched the Dr. Brite brand (they’re amazing). One picked Mint Chocolate Chip, while my other two kids picked Strawberry.
When the toothpaste came, they were excited about the flavors and have been using them for over a year now.
Disliking Tooth Brushing Can Be Linked to Picky Eating
One last thing before we jump into these 9 tips. When your child is really sensitive to the feeling of the toothbrush, it’s common for them to also be sensitive to other textures in their mouth.
That means they might not like other textures of food, and be picky eaters.
If you see this link with your child, head to Sensory Issues with Food for more idea to help with their eating too!
Affiliate links used below. See our full disclosure.
9 Ways to Get Kids to Brush Their Teeth
I’ve got a bunch of tips to help you get your kid’s teeth brushed without a battle. You don’t need to use them all, but pin this so you can keep referring back to these tips as you need them.
1. Stand behind them: This might sound strange, but you can wrangle your child better if you stand behind and lean around them to brush their teeth. More importantly, it gives kids a sense of security when they can lean back into you if the sensations of tooth brushing cause them irritation.
2. Sing: Pick a simple nursery rhyme to use every time you brush your child’s teeth.
It could be “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “I’m a Little Teapot” song. It doesn’t matter as long as it isn’t too long. The first couple times you sing it won’t help much, but as you consistently sing the song every time your child brushes their teeth, they’ll begin to learn how much longer they have to endure the tooth brushing. When the song ends, so does getting their teeth getting brushed.
3. Stand in front of the mirror: Position your child in front of the mirror when you brush their teeth. Grab a step stool if you need to! When your child can see what you’re doing, instead of blindly feeling the sensations, it can help them tolerate getting their teeth brushed.
I even like to say things like, “Oh look, we’re getting the back teeth now.” If I’m not using the singing strategy (see above) that is.
4. Modeling: While most dentists recommend parents brushing their kids teeth until at least age 6 (some recommendations say age 9-10), giving kids the wheel can be helpful way to begin tooth brushing. They’re in control, which toddlers love. And, for the kids with sensitivities, they can tolerate the sensations better.
Just make sure you brush their teeth well after they’ve “practiced”.
5. Give Firm Pressure: An additional way to help kids that are sensitive to the sensations of tooth brushing is to use the hand you’re not brushing their teeth with to push down firmly on their shoulder. Or, to firmly hold their chin. This is called deep pressure and can ground and calm kids with sensory sensitivities.
*If your child is brushing their teeth themselves, you can stand behind them and use both of your hands to push down on their shoulders (if they like that).
6. Hold a toy: Holding a toy, particularity a stuffed animal you can squeeze, will also give your child some calming deep pressure and tactile sensations. This can also become part of your routine. They could even have a special tooth brushing stuffed animal that stays under the bathroom sink!
7. Make a routine: Speaking of making routines, you’ll want to create a simple one, that may incorporate some of these tips. Here’s an example of a tooth brushing routine:
- Brush teeth every night after bath and before reading stories
- Remind your child that you’re going to brush teeth 10 min, 5 min, and 1 min before you begin (this is tip #8)
- Give them their stuffed animal to hold and guide them to the sink where they can see themself in the mirror (tip #6)
- Stand behind them with one hand on their shoulder for deep pressure while you sing “Mary had a Little Lamb” (tip #8)
Your routine doesn’t have to look exactly like this one.
Make it to suit you and your child’s needs. But, be consistent. When your child knows what to expect, they’ll be much more compliant.
For children that aren’t verbal or have special needs, a visual schedule can help them understand the steps in the routine.
8. Give Warnings: Many kids get frustrated and refuse to comply with tooth brushing because they don’t feel like it.
They’re in the middle of playing and don’t want to drop what they’re doing. Remember, they don’t have an understanding of time the way we do. They don’t understand, it’s almost bed time and they have to brush their teeth now or it will get too late and they’ll be overly tired and miserable the next day.
Giving some simple warnings ahead of time can help kids transition away from what their doing more easily. It also helps them mentally prepare for a task they may not like!
Depending on their age, and how much they hate tooth brushing, will dictate how many reminders they need. 1-3 warnings is good for the vast majority of kids.
9. Use Sensory Activities Before Hand: If your child has a hard time standing still for tooth brushing or is really sensitive, you might want to experiment with doing some sensory activities before you even try to brush their teeth. Anywhere from 10-30 minutes before tooth brushing, you can try letting them get their energy out by jumping on a trampoline or running around in the backyard.
This concept is called a Sensory Diet. It’s preparing the body for tooth brushing so they can tolerate it more easily. The activities you can use for a sensory diet vary widely, depending on what helps your child calm down. Head to 100+ Sensory Diet Activities to get more ideas.
You’ve got 9 tips you can use today! I want to hear from you in the comments (we read and respond to every single one). Tell me what tip you’re most excited to try and if you’ve got any tips you use, then please share them with us!!!
More Help for When Kids Refuse Necessary Daily Activities
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.