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.]
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)
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!
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”
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.
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.