Our dentists hear it all too often from parents: “My kids don’t brush well.” Or “My kids aren’t brushing as much as they should.” Sometimes, parents are just making excuses—but more often, they genuinely want to know what they can do to improve their kids’ oral health.
Let’s face it, most kids hate brushing their teeth. Even if they do it without complaint, they might not have developed the brushing skills needed to fully prevent tooth decay. So it should be no surprise that most kids don’t brush well.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do as a parent to remedy the situation and keep your children’s smiles healthy.
Ways Kids Might Not Be Brushing Appropriately
Even if your child approaches brushing with glee, there are several ways in which they might not be doing a good job. Here are common issues we see with children’s brushing:
- They fail to reach the back teeth. For some reason, brushing our front teeth is a more obvious thing to do. (Probably because those are the teeth we see when we smile in the mirror.) Children most often develop cavities in their back molars because they fail to brush them, or they brush them without the needed attention and care.
- They forget to do the backs. Molars in the back are one thing; kids also seem to forget to brush the back-side surfaces of their teeth, even the front ones. Even when they do remember, it requires holding the toothbrush at an unnatural angle, and so they might not do a very good job.
- They skip the toothpaste. Most commercial toothpaste, even those made “for kids,” tastes pretty bad, especially compared with childhood treats. We’ve seen a lot of kids who brush to please their parents but who somehow “forget” to put toothpaste on the brush.
- They skip brushing altogether. Some kids are bolder and find ways to skip brushing altogether.
If your kids don’t brush well, you are not alone. So, if you suspect that your child has one or more of these habits, what can you do? Here are six steps you can take to lessen or prevent more permanent damage as your kids learn to brush better:
Step #1: Make Regular Appointments with Your Dentist
Your dentist should be your child’s main line of protection against tooth decay and oral diseases like gingivitis. Be sure your children are seeing a dentist once every six months. This way, the dentist can spot issues before they become huge problems. Getting a thorough cleaning every once in a while is a good thing, too.
Step #2: Take His or Her Advice
Remember, part of a dentist’s job is to make sure your child’s teeth are being cared for. So, if your child’s dentist notices that your child is not brushing, don’t take it as a comment on your parenting!
Again, many kids dislike brushing. And most have room for improvement when it comes to brushing technique. When your dentist makes suggestions, don’t get defensive. Think of it as a team effort toward keeping your child healthy.
Step #3: Get Dental Sealants
Dental sealants are a plastic resin coating applied to your kids’ teeth, typically the back molars. The plastic starts soft and pliable, so it is able to fill in the pits and fissures in your child’s back teeth. When it dries, it forms a hard, protective barrier that keeps out food and bacteria and helps to prevent future cavities.
Dental sealants are a good preventive step for children. Until they learn to brush their back teeth well, sealants can help prevent tooth decay. If your child’s dentist has not suggested sealants, go ahead and ask about them.
Step #4: Keep Up Their Brushing Routine
Brushing comes easier when it is made into a habit. Be sure your kids are brushing at least twice a day, at consistent times. After breakfast and right before bed are common brushing times for kids.
Many parents are tempted to let their kids “skip” brushing if they are tired, or if there is a special event going on. Other times, parents let them skip if the kids complain too much. (What tired and frustrated parent hasn’t given in at one time or another?!)
Resist these temptations. Habits are built on repetition, and every time you let your kids skip makes it that much harder to instill the habit over the long run.
Step #5: “Un-Rush” Them
Most kids brush poorly because they feel rushed. Even if you are not rushing them, they might feel rushed, especially if they feel that brushing it cutting into their play time.
So “un-rush” your kids:
- Remind your children that there is a set time for brushing (see step #4), and then actually set aside enough time for them to do it well.
- Make it clear that they are expected to do it for so long—at least two minutes with brush in mouth.
- Brushing right before bedtime is a good idea: It marks the transition to bedtime and makes kids feel less like brushing is cutting into play time.
- Don’t try to squeeze in brushing right before they have to be somewhere on time—right before school, for example.
- Remind them that, if they rush and do a poor job, they will have to brush again!
Step #6: Make Brushing Something to Look Forward To
Kids tend to find brushing boring. Adults do, too, but most of us understand its importance to our health and have managed to make it a habit. Not so with kids.
So you might need to incentivize them a little at first. For example:
- Let them pick out their toothbrush. If you need to pay a few extra dollars for the character toothbrush, or the toothbrush that’s just the right color, do it; it’s well worth a few extra bucks to establish a brushing habit that can help prevent hundreds in added dentist bills down the road.
- Use a timer. Some kids really like having a timer. It’s not just a fun way to watch time go by; it is also a good external cue telling them how long to brush. Find a timer that they like—maybe one that is colorful, or that makes a surprising but pleasant sound when done. (One mom shared that her five-year-old got a kick out of a timer that looked like a chicken and would “cluck” when time was up!)
- Praise them. Kids respond well to positive reinforcement, especially from their parents. Even though brushing is something simple and expected, praise them for it. Doing so makes it more likely they will brush again without argument.