Dental Health

Just brush your toddler's teeth for them, experts say.
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PSA: Just Brush Your Kid's Teeth For Them

Honestly, if they can’t tie their shoes yet, they can’t brush their teeth properly.

You already know how important it is to get your kids into the habit of regularly brushing their teeth, and starting early gives them a chance to really learn how to maintain their oral health for years to come. But aside from that, their teeth and mouth just need to be cleaned — those might be “just” baby teeth, but they can still get covered in bacteria and sticky substances that need to be brushed off twice a day. But it can also be incredibly difficult to get kids to actually brush their teeth. And that is why so many pediatric dentists say: just brush your kid’s teeth for them. They have plenty of time to learn and be independent, but right now, they need clean teeth.

This is especially true if your little one is under the age of 5. I recently watched a TikTok video where an 18-month-old brushed her own teeth, and instantly felt inadequate as a mom knowing that my 2-year-old is still struggling to brush hers. But the truth is, most kids under 5 years old will need the extra help. “Most young children — ages 1 to 4 — do not have the proper coordination to brush their own teeth properly,” explains Dr. Elliott Maser, DDS, clinical associate professor of pediatric dentistry at University of Pennsylvania. “Age 5 is not the magic number, but eye-hand coordination has improved enough by that age so a child should be able to effectively brush independently.”

Some experts suggest children can’t properly brush their own teeth until they are between the ages of 6 to 9. It’s all about dexterity and coordination, so if you notice that your 7-year-old is still struggling, there’s nothing wrong with helping them out so that their teeth are healthy and clean. Shoelaces is a common comparison — when your child can tie their own shoes, then they can brush their own teeth.

As a mom myself, I feel a certain amount of guilt wrestling the toothbrush from my daughter’s hands (as she tries to brush her hair with it) and taking over the toothbrushing myself. Sometimes I think I should just be encouraging her to do it herself instead of doing it for her. If you feel the same way, rest assured that teaching proper oral health is the more important job here. Dr. Maser says that parents should focus more on the element of proper brushing before they focus on teaching their kids how to do it. “Sending the child to the bathroom and saying, ‘Please brush your teeth,’ will not necessarily have the child brush effectively. It would be more time efficient to have the parent brush the child’s teeth first so that all plaque and food debris can be removed before the child’s attention span ends.”

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How To Help Teach Your Kids How To Brush Their Teeth

That being said, you still want to teach your kids how to eventually brush their own teeth, and you can do that while doing it for them. “Toothbrushing unfortunately can be viewed as a chore by many children,” Dr. Maser says. “Mimicking what the parent does is beneficial as long as the parent is brushing properly.”

Dr. Maser recommends letting your child brush some of their teeth, then taking over to brush some more. Not only does this help you teach your little one how to brush and where to do it, but it also allows the parents to catch any spots the child might have missed.

He adds that it’s also important to make toothbrushing seem like fun rather than like something they have to do. “Take your child to pick out their very own toothbrush, for starters,” he says. “Then, when it comes to the brushing itself, the parent can name the teeth as they are brushed, pretend the teeth are different animals each day, have the child brush all the top teeth and the parent brush the bottom teeth.” Basically, make toothbrushing like a game.

You can also make it interactive. Dr. Steve Cohen, DMD of Livingston Smiles and Ironbound Dental, tells Romper that it’s a good idea to play the child’s favorite song and brush for the duration of the song. (Pro tip: find a tooth brushing song, like this Elmo one, that plays for less than two minutes).

And to really make sure you’re brushing their teeth while teaching them, get a good look in their mouth. “I find that if the parent sits on a bathroom stool or even the toilet and has the child stand in front with their back to them, the child tips their back, which allows the parent to see into the mouth easier,” Dr. Cohen says. “It also mimics the position the child will be in when they visit the dentist office, preparing them for a more comfortable appointment and helping develop health habits at a young age.”

How To Get Toddlers Interested In Brushing Their Teeth

While some toddlers might show interest in brushing their teeth, many will quickly get bored and just don’t have the attention span to do it for more than few seconds. You might find that nearly as soon as you start brushing their teeth, they start wiggling away.

Dr. Maser recommends breaking this up. “Try brushing a few teeth at a time, and then give the child a short break,” he says. “Bring the child back, and brush several more. Sure, this is time consuming, but it may allow the parent to do a better job.” And don’t skimp on this because it’s annoying. “I strongly feel that tooth brushing is a battle worth pursuing,” Dr. Maser says.

Aside from just brushing your kid’s teeth, you should also focus on maintaining proper oral health for your little ones. A lot of this comes down to snacking. Dr. Maser says to avoid snacks that are loaded with sugar. “If a child snacks through the day and loves junk snacks, give the child a snack all at one time,” he says. “In that way, the sugar content is all at once, not spread out over many hours.”


Dr. Elliott Maser, DDS, clinical associate professor of pediatric dentistry at University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Steve Cohen, DMD, Livingston Smiles and Ironbound Dental