How do I encourage my three-year-old kid to brush his teeth if he hates brushing?

Doctor's Answers (2)

Thanks so much for asking this question for I am certain many parents are facing the exact same situation as you! 

I am glad that while your child is free of dental decay, you are taking the advice given seriously. I would love to share with you some tips that my parents have found really useful. 

Caution: it may be a tad unconventional but they work!

1. Mum, I'm a big boy now!

Three year olds want to own their new-found independence -- this is part of their normal psychological developmental. Just like how they must wear a certain shoe to school or put on a particular shirt (even though the top you picked was just fine!) and will not accept it any other way, I find that we can hone this need for independence to our advantage. 

Involve him in every step of the decision making sequence of toothbrushing. It can start from the aisles of the supermarket. Let him pick out his toothbrush and toothpaste. I'd buy more than one of each (I'll explain why later). Find ones with his favourite character of the moment or favourite colour. Fancy features like toothbrushes with blinking lights and songs or electric spin brushes could be a big draw for your little one. 

Bonus tip: these lights and songs are intentionally designed to be 1-2 minutes long which add a visual/audio cue for your child to know how long they need to be brushing for!

When it is toothbrushing time, it's time to flex that decision-making muscle of his! Let him decide which toothbrush (that's why you have to get more than one!) he shall use today. Which toothpaste to use next.. Which teeth to have brushed first.. Can he help mum squeeze the toothpaste? You get the drift. It doesn't really matter if he chose the Spiderman brush over the Paw Patrol brush, but it does make a difference to his developing psyche and his willingness to brush. Kids at his age love being able to be a "big boy" and make decisions. Try it and see for yourself! 

2. I don't understand why I need to brush mummy

"No shoes in the house!"  

           "Why, mummy?"

"Because your shoes are dirty and will dirty the house!"

We often explain reasons for why we ask our children to do things a certain way. In the same way, I find children respond to the idea of toothbrushing better when they understand why they have to do it. 

Reading a book or watching a video and talking about toothbrushing with your child are good ways to get started. Speak to them about why they need to brush e.g. your corn gets stuck in your teeth! We need to brush those away. Some parents use visuals like cavities to highlight the importance of brushing. My word of advice is to do it gently without resorting to scare tactics. Check out this link which is an easy and fun way to conceptualise brushing for your son.

This is a good time to bring up a big "what not-to-do". Parents often (hands up if you are guilty!) use dentists to threaten children into brushing. "If you do not brush your teeth, I will bring you to dentist to pull out all your teeth!" Sound familiar? While it may work for a while, it will definitely backfire when it is time to actually visit the dentist. You may know it is just an empty threat, but your child will not.. 

3. Keeping up a good routine

You mentioned that you brush his teeth 1-2 times a day. Children thrive on routine and it can be terribly confusing for them as they wonder why they have to brush tonight when they didn't need to brush last night. I encourage you to be consistent with the brushing, twice a day, everyday. This allows him to know what to expect daily -- no surprises! 

Do look at your timing of toothbrushing as well. In my experience, parents and I have found out that some kids do not want to brush because it signals that the night is over and that they have to go to bed. So the fight to brush is actually more about bed time than it was about toothbrushing. Changing the timing of toothbrushing in the night routine or assuring your child that he will still have time for stories and quiet play after has helped many families. 

Making toothbrushing fun is crucial, though I sense like many parents who have posed me this question in the clinic, you have tried singing and dancing and coaxing him into brushing with inconsistent success. One key element to add to it all is to sprinkle lots of positivity. 

I'm sure your boy loves it when you are proud of him. Even if toothbrushing was a struggle that day, find things that he did that were positive. "Mummy is so proud (that) you cleaned out all the sugar-bugs today!" or "Wow you opened so wide today! You made it so easy to brush out all the food on your teeth!". Peppered with cuddles and high-5s, it is a nice ending to toothbrushing that your son will always look forward to. Positive reinforcement goes a long way!

4. Find yourself an ally

I cannot tell you how many times this has happened in my clinic. Parents have been nagging about toothbrushing and using all sorts of bribes and threats at home to no avail. However, the moment they come to see me for a dental visit, they wonderfully become toothbrushing angels at home! 

Sometimes the messaging just has to come from someone else in authority and children listen straight away! Just like how our kids sometimes listen to their teachers better than us mums! (even though we were saying the very same thing). So get a paediatric dentist on your side as a helpful ally. We know how to work that magic! 

A final thought: Keep trying all the strategies possible and don't give up because the goal at the end is for him to enjoy healthy teeth and gums. All your hard work is worth it!

Good luck!

Wishing you lots of toothbrushing fun.

Hi there!

I can truly empathize with this struggle, being a father of 2 toddlers.

I normally do advise parents that inculcating the habit of brushing starts as early as when they are a newborn. Introducing them a towel or a gauze to clean the bony ridges daily even before the teeth erupts. This is to have them understand that it is a routine for us to clean our oral cavity.

Now that your son is 3 and past that stage. It will involve much reasoning. Find out why he hates brushing. Also try to make teeth brushing fun. Try to get toothbrushes that attracts him like his favourite cartoon characters or toothbrushes with fancy gadges/lights. This will definitely pique the kids' interest. 

Avoid making the dentist the boogeyman as that would make them fearful of visiting the dentist when it is necessary. 

Hope this helps!




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