Originally published in April 2010.
Brushing another person’s teeth isn’t the easiest job in the world. By the time kids hit the preschool years, they’re ready to start learning to do it themselves. But they still need some help from their parents.
Stephanie Gouthro says the first thing she did was take five-year-old Quinn and Jenna, three, to the grocery store to pick out new brushes. “Winnie-the-Pooh and Diego! Woohoo! We’re good to go!” says Gouthro.
At first, says Gouthro, she tried to teach her children perfect technique, but this soon proved frustrating for both her and the kids. “So I relaxed, handed them the toothbrush, and they stuck them in their mouths. I would brush at the same time, and they would watch and copy me.”
Kids are about ready to manage this task on their own when they can tie their shoes and colour in the lines, says Jennifer Tulk, a dental assistant in the paediatric dentistry department at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “Until that point, we recommend parents brush their kids’ teeth — or at least help.” Read on for some tips.
Share the task
Jayne Pellatt* pretty much lets six-year-old Sam brush his own teeth. When he was learning, says Pellatt, “I would have him hold the toothbrush with me, while I cleaned his teeth, so he could see what it was supposed to feel like.” Pellatt still brushes three-year-old Michaela’s teeth. “I ask her to hold the handle while I do it, and then I ask her to try it on her own. She will for a few strokes, and then she gives it back to me to finish.”
Make it fun
In Marianne Deeks’ household, tooth brushing is a safari of sorts. “My youngest, Camryn, who is three, is not particularly fond of it so we’ve made it into a game. We go on tooth-brushing animal hunts. I usually get the hippos and giraffes, and she gets the spiders. Then she spits them out. I realize how ridiculous this sounds — but it works.”
In the Gouthro household, they sing a song: This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth…
Deeks, who has two daughters, says, “I am usually with the girls as they try brushing their own teeth, and I will explain which teeth they need to get or have missed. Sometimes we will review how to brush their teeth — for example, not side to side, but up and down. My husband also made a bit of a game of brushing their tongues. They very much enjoy that.”
Perfect your technique
The plaque sits right along the gum line, so brush from the gums up on the bottom, and from the gums down on top. Try to encourage your child to brush the tongue as well, says Tulk. Choose a soft or extra-soft brush. There are lots of toothbrushes on the market with flashing lights or musical chips that act as a timer. Brush for as long as it takes to sing a song like “Happy Birthday” or “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” says Tulk.
It’s really good to do if your child will tolerate it, says Tulk, especially if your child’s teeth are really tight. Some parents find a flosser with a handle easier to use with young children.
Use a mirror
Susan Luff, who has five children under age 10, shows her kids how to “say cheese” so they can see their teeth in the mirror, brush up and down, and work around the corners of the mouth. “We do a count of five on each part of the mouth,” she says.
Use toothpaste sparingly
A pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste is all you need for a preschooler. If your child is starting the job and you’re finishing, don’t add more paste. “It’s the brush that cleans the teeth,” says Tulk. “And the toothpaste delivers the flouride to strengthen the teeth. Many parents choose a non-fluoridated paste until a child is old enough for the fluoridated kind, or you can just use water. Fluoride is often added to municipal drinking water.
Establish a routine
In the Manley* house, Jake, who is five, and his younger brother Tyson, brush twice a day, after breakfast and before bed, “and sometimes more if we feel they need to,” says their mom, Lisa. That’s about right, says Tulk.
Send an apple
Lisa doesn’t send a toothbrush to school with her boys, “because they barely have time to eat, she says, adding that she’s cut out sugary drinks in their lunches in favour of plain water. Gouthro often sends an apple in Quinn’s lunch pack. Tulk says crunchy fruits and veggies and hard cheeses, such as cheddar, do in fact help to keep food off the teeth when brushing isn’t an option.
*Names changed by request.