“Not the toothbrush again, Mom!”

Why kids don’t want to brush their teeth and how to change that

You know the drill. He eats the toothpaste, attempts to clean the toilet seat with the toothbrush, and then throws it under the tub. Because really. Oral hygiene? Not his thing.

Our Filip must have wanted to get started ASAP, because he was born with a tooth already poking out. So we had to think about oral hygiene at the same time as we were figuring out how to hold the baby and which end to put the diaper on.

“It’s important to pay attention to good oral hygiene from day one,” the parenting books say. Okay, but how can I do that when he only tolerates it for about three seconds?

We bought this adorable, colorful dinosaur toothbrush with super special bristles and all, but after a few tries, my child concluded the toothbrush was not his friend. After that you’d have had to pry his mouth open with a crowbar.

He screwed his lips up tight and turned his head from side to side, daggers shooting from his eyes. When I kept at it, he cried his eyes out.

One time I seized the opportunity and (albeit reluctantly) ran the toothbrush over his teeth quickly, seeing as his mouth was already wide open from screaming. Of course my husband chose that very moment to come into the bathroom. Poor man thought I was torturing the child. It must have looked awful.

Well, what can I tell you... I never did that again.

So the months passed by, and the baby’s teeth got brushed about twice a week

Sometimes Filip chewed on the toothbrush for a minute, and he liked to eat the toothpaste. But that was about it. Brushing teeth slowly became an unpleasant chore. I felt guilty because I couldn’t brush my baby’s teeth twice a day. I felt even worse when I forced it on him.

“That’s okay,” I comforted myself. “He’s still so young, surely he won’t ruin his teeth yet.”

The people around me were somewhat less optimistic. How many horror stories I had to sit through!

“At 2 years old his teeth were completely black. Completely!”
“I had to get a filling when I was 4, and to this day I remember how scary it was.”
“When the baby teeth get too bad, sometimes they have to be pulled...”

Good grief, that’s not what I want for my baby! I got scared and started chasing him around the house waving the toothbrush. Filip considered this a game of tag, where the object is to run away from the toothbrush as quickly as possible. So there wasn’t much brushing going on.

So what could I do?

Pin him down and brush his teeth while he screams?

I tried pinning him down exactly once, in absolute desperation, while trying to give him medicine. I still get chills thinking about that day. He fought me with every ounce of his strength, so I had to use my legs to restrain him, too, all while he was screaming at the top of his lungs. I had to hold his head still, too, to get the medicine in him. I felt like a total sadist. The worst mother ever. A truly despicable person.

But to put us both through that, twice a day, just to keep his pearly whites pearly white? Not in a million years.

Not to mention how much he’d hate the toothbrush after that. Sure, nobody LOVES brushing their teeth, but... 

Then one day I had an epiphany. This little person is brand new. He doesn’t know anything about the world. He wasn’t born with an aversion to oral hygiene. He only knows what he’s seen in the last 16 months. Most of which has been from me.

So I tried putting myself in his booties. That’s when it clicked:

It’s after dinner, and I’m getting kinda tired. I’m in the bath, sitting up like a pro, and splashing my hand in the water trying to catch my rubber duck. It keeps getting away from me. It’s harder to catch stuff in the water. Come here, duckie! Gotcha! Oh, no. Not again! Maybe it’ll work better with the other hand? 

And then mommy says with a tired sigh: “All right, let’s do your teeth now.” She sticks that weird hairy thing in my mouth like she does so often. But I’m busy duck hunting now. I don’t have time for that thing. 

Mommy tries for a minute or two and says: “Look, I’m brushing my teeth, too!” She sticks a bigger hairy thing in her own mouth and wiggles it around. It doesn’t look that fun when she does it, either. When we take a bath together, that’s fun. Mommy smiles, she holds me, she does funny voices for the ducks and splashes around just like I do. 

But brushing teeth... I don’t know. Mommy just looks stressed out about the whole thing. A minute ago everything was nice and happy, but now mommy is all tense and getting mad. Nope, this doesn’t seem like much fun. Not gonna do it. 

And I got it.

Why should Filip enjoy brushing his teeth when I don’t enjoy it myself?

I accidentally taught him that brushing your teeth is a terrible chore you have to do even though you don’t want to.

What did I expect, when I slink into the bathroom twice a day to brush my own teeth – got to get this over with quickly, stuff to do...

And that’s what I’m passing on to my son. I always just said it was something we had to do. Inspiring, isn’t it?? :D I wouldn’t enjoy it either if I were him.

The fault wasn’t in him. I didn’t give birth to a hardcore toothbrush refuser. He just learned a lesson from me that I wasn’t trying to teach!

He’s watching and learning from me all the time, my boy. So what do I do now?

Show him that brushing your teeth is actually great. You just have to change your point of view!

So that’s where we started. As my own feelings about brushing teeth started changing, we naturally started approaching it differently, too. And believe it or not, today Filip drags me into the bathroom before bed, saying, “Bwush teef!” And then he just brushes and brushes. What a relief!

Brushing teeth is no longer a struggle – even though Filip is 2 now, and we have the occasional loud disagreement, he still brushes his teeth without a fight.

So here are three specific things that worked for us:

 Make “scrubbing” teeth an adventure

With a bit of imagination, your bathroom can be a dark cave where you brush a crocodile’s teeth.
Or each tooth is a tiny little creature that needs scrubbing all over.
Or you can play your favorite song and dance to it.

The important thing is to relax and think of brushing teeth as a totally awesome thing to do. A special opportunity to go wild. For the kids, and for you. :) To genuinely look forward to brushing teeth as much as we look forward to other favorite rituals: Sunday pancakes, afternoon coffee, or reading a story before bed (insert your favorite ritual here).

 Don’t stand over them like a drill sergeant

When I stood over Filip like a teacher correcting him, he just got irritated. Now I sit down on the tub or a stool, so that I’m more on his level. And I’m really there with him in that moment. I let him examine the toothbrush and experiment with it as much as his heart desires, and he is in heaven.

And while he does it, I might growl like a tiger, because I enjoy brushing teeth now, too. He winks at me, laughs and scrubs away. :)

 Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t always go well

When I stress about it, we seem to run into trouble no matter what we do. We end up both getting mad. Even if only once in a blue moon, sometimes things don’t go well, and we don’t manage it with a smile.

When that happens, though, we just move on and don’t keep score. That way Filip keeps seeing brushing his teeth as fun, not something he can “fail” at.

Do you know other parents who stress over brushing their kids’ teeth? Send them this article.

About the author
Aneta Bouckova, Aparenting mama and Aparenting course graduate, mom of Filip (2 years old).

“I got my master’s degree in English studies and became a translator. I find joy in helping people understand each other, whether that’s through overcoming a language barrier or any other means. I would find it hard to live without dancing. Tolkien and summer storms fill me with joy beyond measure.”

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