Tips to get kids to brush their teeth
"Have you brushed your teeth?" may seem like an innocent question, but many parents know it can incite complaining, whining or bedtime battles with kids who don't like, or simply can't be bothered, to brush their teeth. It's not uncommon--according to a 2014 survey by the Ad Council, 75 percent of parents said their children didn't brush their teeth on a regular basis. That may be one reason why about one in five American kids ages 5 to 11 has at least one decaying tooth, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that's a health issue that has greater implications beyond cavities, says Maryam Mohsenzadeh, DDS, dental director of the Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
"Improper brushing and flossing means your child doesn't get rid of the bacteria in the mouth that can lead to tooth and gum disease," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "But that bacteria can also cause inflammation elsewhere in the body, which may lead to other issues such as cardiovascular disease and increase risk of respiratory infection. So, parents should teach children that brushing their teeth regularly is necessary, as it is an important part of lifelong wellness."
Sometimes, though, that's easier said than done. Dr. Mohsenzadeh offers some strategies to get kids brushing the recommended 2 minutes twice a day.
- Let kids make some choices. Regular brushing is non-negotiable, but there are some things you can do to let your child have ownership over the task. "Let him pick out the toothpaste flavor--maybe he wants to try a fruity variety instead of the usual mint--or select a fun toothbrush," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "He may be more eager to brush his teeth with tools he picked out for himself."
- Try a little togetherness. You can be a good role model for your child by brushing your teeth at the same time he does. "It also affords you the opportunity to watch your child's technique to make sure he's brushing properly--some medical professionals advise supervising your child until they're 8 or 9 years old," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "Plus, it's a nice way to get in a little bonding time at the beginning or end of the day."
- Make it a party. Create a fun atmosphere to make tooth brushing less of a chore for kids. "Play some music for a little dance party," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "There are brushes out there that play music for two minutes, which helps children make sure they're spending enough time brushing their teeth. Some brushes also have flashing lights, which can be good for younger kids.
- Reinforce--and reward--good habits. You've encouraged your child to brush every day and explained what can happen to his mouth if he doesn't, and you're still meeting resistance? It may be worth drawing up a reward chart. "Keep track of every time he brushes and if he gets a certain number of check marks on the chart or brushes daily for a certain period of time, offer a reward, such as staying up a little later one night or a small toy," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "Try not to use a sugary treat as a reward, since those aren't good for the teeth. And words of encouragement for a job well done can help, too."
“What I usually suggest is to try to have your kids brush before they are too tired and sleepy, and then if they want to stay up longer, at least this task is done,” says Dr. Mohsenzadeh. “This also has health benefits, in that your kids are not consuming food up until the last minute before they go to bed, allowing their stomachs more time for digestion before they fall asleep.”
- Go high tech. "If it's hard to tear your child away from his tablet, use it to your advantage. There are many apps that encourage kids to brush their teeth," Dr. Mohsenzadeh says. "Some play music or videos, others turn tooth brushing into a game. They'll often have built-in timers to ensure that two minutes of brushing actually happens."
The Children’s Mobile Dental Clinic, founded by Queen of the Valley Medical Center and its partners, provides basic preventive care and restorative dental services to low-income families in Napa County.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.