Ugh! Brushing teeth with a toddler or child who doesn’t want to is not fun. It can be a stressful event for you and your little one. If your toddler won’t brush teeth, you’ve come to the right place! While progress won’t happen instantly, it will happen if you try out some of these ideas and figure out what works for you and your toddler.
Is it normal for toddlers to hate brushing teeth?
The short answer is yes, it is quite normal for toddlers and children to hate brushing their teeth. You are far from the first parent (or caregiver) to wonder why your small human so hates to brush their teeth. But do not fear, I have some great and practical tips to help you navigate teeth-brushing, even if your toddler is hysterical when it’s time for brushing teeth.
The bummer news is that, like most things, this will take time. Your child is not going to go from fighting teeth brushing to loving it the next time. But the hope is that they will get better and better over time.
Why do toddlers refuse to brush their teeth?
If you think about it, there are plenty of reasons why a toddler won’t brush their teeth. Plenty of adults avoid the task as well, so it’s no surprise that children are the same way.
- Boring: Some kids don’t want to brush their teeth because it’s boring. You are supposed to brush for two minutes, and that can feel like a really long time! So kids would rather skip out!
- Sensory Issues: There are a lot of strange sensations that are involved in teeth brushing. You can both taste and smell the toothpaste, which might be a strange flavor. Additionally, having little bristles swished around in your mouth might feel very weird to your child.
- “I do it!”: To get a really good clean, toddlers and kids need help brushing. But the classic “I do it” phase can make that part hard.
- Negative associations: Sometimes your child has had one or two rough experiences with teeth brushing and so even the sight or mention of a toothbrush can send them into a spiral.
What should I do if my toddler won’t brush their teeth?
1. Get a fun new toothbrush
Everybody likes new things, so try helping your toddler with brushing teeth by getting a new toothbrush. If you have a one-year-old who won’t let you brush his teeth, you could try a finger brush (like this one). If your 3-year-old won’t let you brush her teeth, try this Disney princess electric toothbrush. This toothbrush is a unique u shape that will help your child if they experience gagging when trying to brush. You could also try these toothbrushes by Dr. Brown’s that come in a whole bunch of different fun animals, including flamingos, dinosaurs, and alligators for your 2-year-old who is refusing to brush his teeth.
No matter what age your child is, trying out different kinds of brushes might help. If you want, you could also go to the store with your child and let them help pick it out. This might be extra motivating! Or you could gift them the new toothbrush and make it an exciting surprise! Since you know your child best, make the decision that you think will help them get excited about their new brush.
2. Practice on a stuffy
Kids can learn A LOT through play, so use this fact to your advantage! Grab a favorite stuffed animal or baby and practice brushing its teeth. You can be the one to brush the stuffy’s teeth, and you can give your child a chance to do the same. Make it silly and fun!
Make sure you let your child know that the little animal is having fun and that there is nothing to be afraid of. This can help ease fear and give your toddler comfort while brushing their teeth.
You might find that doing this just one or two times is sufficient, but some kids may want to brush their stuffy’s teeth first every time.
3. Let them see you brush your teeth
This is a simple one! Make sure your child is around when you brush your teeth. Let them see that it’s not scary, and is in fact, part of everyday life. Sometimes when I brush my teeth with my kids, I will make silly sounds when brushing and silly faces.
You can give your child a warning and say something like, “I will brush my teeth first, and then it’s your turn!”. Be clear so they know what to expect.
4. Get a visual timer
The rule of thumb is to have kids brush their teeth for around 2 minutes. (Although if at first you only get 15 seconds, don’t push it too hard, because this could add to the stress.) If your child just seems to get bored and doesn’t want to brush their teeth for the whole two minutes, try a visual timer.
Time is a very abstract concept, so give your child something to look at that marks time so they have a better idea of how long they have to brush. This is a cute sand timer made especially for brushing teeth! There is also this visual timer that comes in different colors.
5. Listen to a fun song (or make one up)
Music is truly magical when it comes to helping kids get through hard things. Everything is better with some music. It can distract your child, so they don’t focus as much on the teeth brushing. Music also generally has a soothing effect.
The choice is yours: find some favorite songs that your child loves, or make up your own song!
If you make up a song, remember that kids just don’t care how great (or terrible) your voice is, or how impressive the lyrics you come up with are. Just go for it!
Or you can borrow the random song I made up:
"Brush, brush, brush your teeth, Brush them everywhere! Brush them up, brush them down, Brush them all around. Brush them here, brush them there, Brush them everywhere!"
Do you want to know all the other ways we use music in our house? Check out my article here about “Why You Should Sing with Toddlers”.
6. Let your child have a turn
Toddlers aren’t great at brushing their own teeth, but give them a chance to try it out. Eventually, you want them to be independent anyway, so let them take a turn with the toothbrush.
In our house, my kids know they get to brush first, and then it’s Mama’s turn. And if we are having a really hard night, sometimes I just let them do it, and I coach them through it. I just tell them, “Try to touch all your teeth”. Generally, though, set up the expectation that you will take a turn after they are done.
Sometimes, I will even sing the above song, and I’ll end with “Five, four, three, two, one, you’re done!” and then it is my turn, and they know it!
Whatever way you try, give your child a warning that you will both be taking a turn. The transition will be smoother if they know what is coming!
7. Try a sticker chart
If your toddler won’t brush their teeth, consider using a sticker chart for motivation. Some kids just need a little reward for their effort. Get your child fun stickers that you know they will love. You can grab some colorful stickers, character stickers, or whatever your child will be willing to work for!
Tell your child that every time they brush their teeth without a meltdown, they will get a sticker. Display the sticker chart somewhere in the bathroom so that you can give them the immediate prize once they brush successfully!
8. Read a book about brushing teeth
If your toddler won’t brush their teeth, then you might want to find a book about teeth brushing to motivate them! Some books are silly, like this one called “Brush Your Teeth, Please” about brushing your teeth with different animals. There’s also this one, called “Brush, Brush, Brush” which is a simple story with lots of different kids brushing their teeth set to a cute rhyme.
Books are often a great way to help put a child’s mind at ease. If you’re looking for other great ways to use books in the toddler years, check out my post on how to choose great books for toddlers.
9. Watch a video about brushing teeth
Sometimes watching someone else brush their teeth without getting scared can make the activity a little easier. There is no shortage of YouTube videos that help kids learn about teeth brushing. You can also find a lot of fun characters with teeth-brushing videos, too, like Daniel Tiger and Peppa Pig.
Your child can watch the video while they brush their teeth, or you can watch it together and talk about it after. Remind your child by saying things like, “Let’s brush our teeth like Daniel Tiger”!
10. Do a fun activity about brushing your teeth
As I’ve said already, sometimes your child just needs a few positive associations with teeth brushing. And it can also be helpful to talk to your kids about why we brush our teeth!
Check out this fun activity sheet from the CDC. It’s free to download and has some fun worksheets for slightly older toddlers and kids.
11. Make it into a game!
Make teeth brushing time into a fun and silly game so that it is a little less scary. One of my friends said that she will have her toddler pretend that her son’s favorite character is stuck in his mouth, and he has to brush it away!
It goes something like this: “Let’s scrub out cookie monster! He’s in your mouth!” Then have the child start brushing. Encourage them to get all the teeth by pretending he is moving around inside their mouth, and your child has to scrub him out. For this to work, you will probably have to get extra animated and over the top for your kid to enjoy it. But if it helps them get their teeth brushed, it’s worth it!
Brushing your child’s teeth doesn’t have to end in a tantrum or tears. You can use these tips to help the process go smoothly. Remember, it may take your child some time to get comfortable with brushing their teeth.
One of my own children really disliked brushing her teeth (screaming, crying, fighting it), but after using several of these tactics, she can now tolerate it just fine! So be patient, and know it will get better!