Tips and tricks for teeth cleaning

Irony: begin writing a post about teeth cleaning tips THE SAME MORNING that your kid smashes his teeth on the monkey bars at creche and chips the two front ones, and pushes them up into the gum impacting the adult ones sitting behind. Oh dear little dude. Anyway, tips below….

Back in March, we took D for his three year old dental check, and received the news that he had several weak spots that were heading towards decay. Right. Damn. We’d been ok-ish with dental hygiene, maybe we were performing at an Achieved level. But this kid inherited my crappy teeth, not my husband’s awesome teeth. I had a root canal when I was five, so pretty shocking genes on my side. My husband has indestructible teeth that never get cavities ever. Our semi-attentive brushing habits would have been ok for a kid with good teeth, but we needed to step it up a few levels for this kid with vulnerable teeth.

Things did not go well to start with. I was a bit panicked that he was only three and they were already talking about future fillings, and remembered the horror of being five with this awful abscessed mouth and the miserable pain that eventually required the root canal, oh hell no, didn’t want him to have to go through that! But D is the sort of child who hates feeling like he’s being made to do something, and has a very very strong sense of his own bodily autonomy… it’s very hard work getting him to do things he doesn’t want to do at the best of times.  He was not keen for this new system of a different toothpaste and a more supervised brushing regime. It was clear after a few nights that he wasn’t going to acquiesce easily. We did three nights of sitting on a parent’s knee, held firmly, while the other parent brushed, but then on night four he was refusing to sit on the knee, insisting that he would never brush his teeth again, declaring that he was going to throw all the toothpaste in the world away, crying, and running off to hide under his bed when we brought the toothpaste out.

So, I took a deep breath and thought about how to avoid making it a battle.

This involved all the tricks below, plus the starting point of building up slowly. Effusive praise for even the slightest hint of cooperation, calling it quits after only five seconds at first – it’s all part of the process, a little bit more the next morning, a little bit more the next night, it doesn’t take very long at all to work up to a decent amount of time. The first sign of protest during brushing would be our warning to very quickly get as much done as possible while reassuring him: “yep, just about done, just a few more teeth, you’re doing so well, thanks so much for cooperating – your teeth are just about clean now, just get these top ones and those back ones and around here, and… all done! Well done, we did a really good job tonight! Yay!”

He’s great with teeth cleaning now [ed: or was, we’ve given it a miss this week and have just done saline rinses while the gums heal from the trauma of the monkey bar collision].

Behold! Our list! [Which will be extra relevant when we rebuild our good habits after this teeth cleaning hiatus.]

1) Tom’s of Maine Strawberry Toothpaste

Most toothpaste tastes quite strong. And D absolutely hates mint. He once had a chocolate covered mint and he cried, spat it out, then tried to wipe his tongue with a cloth (“it’s actually not chocolate! It’s so so so yucky it’s even disgusting!”). Tom’s of Maine is the ONLY fluoride toothpaste we’ve found that he is willing to tolerate. We’ve tried heaps of different kinds. Tom’s of Maine for the win.

(this is not a sponsored post but if Tom wants to sent me free toothpaste, I’m up for that)

2) An electric toothbrush with a sensitive brushing top

The dentist told me this was ok for kids from about 2.5. An electric toothbrush makes it easier for them to do it themselves, they don’t have to figure out the fine motor skills of brushing technique while moving it across different teeth. The vibrations disincentivise gnawing on the brush. And it makes it easier when you’re brushing for them, you can be more thorough without risking poking them in the gum.

3) Wiggles App

This app is fantastic. They get a virtual sticker at the end of two minutes, there’s a cursor that acts as a simple timer, the Wiggles do their thing, and the song instructs on how to brush: “brush up and down, brush round and round, etc”. D watches it during the teeth cleaning.

4) Brush teeth while sitting at the table

This really changed our life! He sits in his normal chair at the table, watching the Wiggles App, and it makes the whole process much more straightforward than trying to get him to stand still on the bathroom step.

5) Warm up videos

A warm up video straight before teeth brushing was a good trick for a while. It helped get past a lot of initial resistance and put him in a better frame of mind to coax him to open his mouth when we were first establishing the routines. The best videos we found are:





The Colgate Kid!

6) Explanations

What we’re aiming for here is motivation without fear or stress. A kid predisposed to decay is going to need fillings no matter how careful you are, so I didn’t want to make him scared of fillings to try and get him to clean his teeth. He ended up having his first filling last week, but it was shallow enough for a simple sealant coating, and he was pretty great about it [inadvertent good prep for the x-rays he needed at the dentist after he crashed his mouth this week].

Some useful phrases:

“Sometimes food gets stuck in our teeth and so we need to brush it out to make our teeth clean again”

“Toothpaste makes our teeth strong, and we need strong teeth to chew up all our food”

“I need to help you clean your teeth because I’m your mummy and it’s my job to help you look after your body until you’re big enough to do it by yourself”

7) Sesame Street game

This simple game involves brushing a monster’s teeth until they’re completely clean. (after playing the game, your child can pretend to be a monster while you brush their teeth).

8) Brushing toys’ teeth

A classic. Any toy with an open mouth can be a candidate, but don’t stop there – it’s a game to make brushing less scary, so whatever, brush that fire truck ladder.

9) Sticker charts

Ah, sticker charts. Controversial, apparently. I am sympathetic to the view that we don’t want to reward our kids for every bloody tiny thing, but on the other hand, if you see the sticker chart as a fun reminder while you’re establishing a habit, it’s pretty damn useful. It can be used indefinitely, or dropped when you forget to bother with the stickers, then rekindled if the teeth cleaning starts to slide. I’ve found it can be quite handy to use it as a record of when we skip teeth cleaning too (i.e. running late in the morning, or if he falls asleep in the car on the way home from an evening outing).

10) Brushing teeth in front of them

I realised after that appointment six months ago that my kids don’t see me brushing my teeth very often. Even if it’s a bonus clean that’s just for show, it’s good for them to see that everyone brushes teeth.

11) Build some incentives into the routine

There’s a natural incentive to cooperate for brushing teeth if it comes straight before the bath and your kid loves the bath, or straight before stories and your kid loves stories. Harness that natural incentive! Get them on board with doing it without fuss so they can move on to the thing they want to do.

Other tips:

While we’re here talking about teeth cleaning, I’ll add some accumulated bits and bobs from years of dentists saying “hmmm, something else you might not realise…” when they look at my shoddy teeth:

  • There are three things to look out for when thinking about food that can damage our teeth: sugar, acidity, stickiness. Sugar on it’s own isn’t anywhere near as bad as a sugary treat that is also sticky. This means that even among sweet treats, there’s a hierarchy of things to choose from. Something like a dried apricot which is sour, sticky, and sweet is terrible for teeth even though it’s not highly processed and has no added sugar. Sticky chewy lollies should be completely off limits, the occasional piece of chocolate is a better option because chocolate will dissolve off our teeth more quickly than anything sticky. Sticky biscuits like toffee pops are worse than the same amount of sugar in a cake. Ice cream isn’t as bad as fizzy drinks (carbonated beverages are acidic). It’s a more complicated message, but important for kids with very bad teeth, because when they have treats you should still aim for the less-bad treat options.
  • Timing is also crucial. A sweet thing in the afternoon isn’t as bad as the same thing in the morning, when it’ll be on the teeth for longer.
  • Constant snacking is bad for our teeth, even if the things we’re eating are neutral-ish.
  • Teeth can cope with occasional sugar/sticky/sour binges much better than every day small quantities. (What’s good for your teeth isn’t the same as what’s good for your blood sugar.) For a kid with vulnerable teeth, eating whatever they want on their birthday is ok – but watch carefully what goes in their lunchbox every day.
  • Brushing too much isn’t good either, it can actually damage the enamel.
  • Modern dentistry is pretty great, but sugar is everywhere. There’s only so much you can do to prevent decay in this environment (like there’s only so much you can do to prevent sun damage if you’re a pale-skinned person living in New Zealand). There’s no point making it a big source of anxiety. Minimise sugar and sticky stuff, but accept that regular checkups and dentistry work is also going to be needed – see that as part of the solution, not a sign of failure to keep the teeth free of decay. If decay is caught early, it can be treated much more effectively.

All the things I didn’t find time to write at the writers retreat

I opened my drafts folder, and found this treasure trove:

I’m on a writing retreat with the kids at the moment. I had plans that I’d finish reading and reviewing The New Zealand Project, but I find myself instead wanting to write about kid stuff. A letter of solidarity and support to a friend who’s had a new baby. A post about being the “mummy magnet” – the feeling of the kids always always wanting to be around me, which I’m not entirely comfortable with but kinda also like, sometimes. I want to write about my younger one, how easy and delightful it is being his mum, how simple his needs are at this age, about his charming easy-going personality. I want to write about my older one, the fun we have together when it’s just the two of us, the challenges of a child who wants to be on the go all the time and turns into a whirlwind when he’s cooped up, and the confronting introspection kindled by parenting a child who is a lot like myself. I want to write about the two of them together, how glad I am seeing that brotherliness start to emerge, how proud it makes me.

I want to write about our busy modern lives, and how this makes it so much harder for people to flourish in the variety of ways that might suit them.

I want to take the time the kids are in the childcare to nap, or go on the waterslide, or go for a swim at the beach – to make the most of it because it’s so precious, but I find it harder to make decisions about what to do when time is scarce.

I want to write about the constant recalibration of parenting techniques with a boundary-pushing child, about how strange it is to think his teenage self will be parented by the very same people whose parenting style was forged in the fire of his preschooler self.

I want to curate this blog.

Also, being on holiday, I want to write about the challenges of holidaying with preschoolers. This is a unique holiday because there is childcare and the food is catered, which takes away a lot of the potential stress of being away from home – but also I’m practised at holidays now, which makes it heaps easier.

I want to write a letter of thanks to the at home parents who are the builders of community, who create connections between us, who absorb the stress of the fast-paced world we live in so that our kids can grow up in a slower environment and unfurl into adulthood at a more gentle pace.

I want to write about the middle class values of hard work above all else – and the class myth of doing the hard yards while you’re young and earning your spot in the meritocracy. Upper middle class parents coaching their kids on how to climb the ladder, while blocking other kids from getting on the bottom rung, then cheering “well done, you did it all by yourself!”, when their kid makes it to the top.

I want to write about raising children as a process of slow acculturation, how kids are pure humanity without a cultural gloss. Different kids find different aspects of the culture to be more congruent with their underlying personalities, which is why they might seem to be so mature in one respect and less so in another respect.  

I want to write about the privileged assumptions underlying a lot of gentle/ respectful parenting stuff, how unrealistic some of this type of advice is for many people.  

I want to write about perfectionism in parenting, and in life, and the intersection of individualism and perfectionism, and the horrible pressure this creates, and the way it shifts the focus from the need to find society-wide solutions. I want to write about the corrosive effect of individualistic progressivism on our political conversations, and the importance of collective action in achieving change, and the challenges of communicating this point. 

I want to write about protective factors against the busy buzz of modern life, things that I’m doing with my kids and that I think are useful – focused mostly on things that combine coping mechanisms for the world as it is with motivation to make it better. About how, six years out from converting to Judaism, it’s occurred to me that this is possibly why I found it so appealing. It might be no coincidence that it was while working long hours in corporate law that I found meaning in the idea of an ancient religion that sanctifies time, and teaches that is our collective responsibility to heal the cracks in the world.

I want to write about how to trust in the parent you are becoming – how the early years just are hard, and how most parenting advice is snake oil that tells you it’s hard because you’re doing it wrong – instead of hard because you’re doing something that isn’t meant to be done without support.

I want to write about entering the final scene of the early years, still in the midst of it but can see the other side, about the bittersweet knowledge that it’s edging away, about the smoothing of the memories – like broken glass rubbed and polished by the sea, the memories are dulled into something less sparkling, but more comfortable, pleasanter to look at, sharp edges gone, easier to carry with you.