Routines and Skills

A Tooth Brushing Routine that Works – free printable

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Do your children enthusiastically rush to the bathroom when you announce it’s time to brush teeth? Or is a battle every time? Do you dream of a tooth brushing routine that works?

When you try to brush your toddler’s teeth, does it seem more like you’re wrestling an alligator? Does nagging your preschooler to let you have a turn to brush their teeth end in frustration for every one?

My family has battled all these obstacles. So I created a tooth brushing routine chart makes it easier to brush successfully.  We finally found a tooth brushing routine that works.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. Read more here.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Why does my child dislike tooth brushing?

There are several challenges involved in brushing teeth, but your child could be resisting tooth brushing for one or more of these reasons:

Sensory challenges

Many children have problems with the taste of the toothpaste or the feeling of the toothbrush. If the toothpaste flavor is too strong and the toothbrush is too scratchy, it really might be unbearable for you child.  If this is your concern, it’s a good time to bring this up to your child’s pediatrician or a good pediatric dentist and see what they suggest.

Time challenges

Small children and children with delays in executive function have a poor sense of time.  What takes 2 minutes, might seem like hours to a preschooler.

Growing desire for independence

It’s a positive developmental phase when toddlers and preschoolers want to do it themselves. While they want to brush their own teeth, your children’s dentist has probably asked you to also follow up and brush their teeth.

Problem with transitions

If your child is having a hard time with tooth brushing and also other times of the day, consider if your child has difficulties with transitions in general.

Define the tooth brushing problem

While you may have a guess from the issues I listed above, always ask your child why he or she is having difficulty.  If you think your child is just stubborn or uncooperative, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Even for my friends with very young children, speech-delayed children, or children with other developmental or neurological differences, don’t underestimating the value of asking your child.  Asking our children even when we don’t believe they have the ability to answer us is another way of recognizing their inherent dignity and value.

Without judgment or highlighting the undesired behavior ask, “Hey, I’ve noticed tooth brushing is hard for you? What’s going on?”

And then be quiet. And listen. And be quiet some more. And ask a follow-up question. You just might be surprised.

Once you’ve identified the problem. Then you’ll have the first step towards better tooth brushing.

Strategies for better tooth brushing

Now you have some ideas about why tooth brushing is a challenge in your family.  What can you do about it?

Explain why we brush our teeth

We have repeatedly needed to educate our children about the importance of tooth brushing.  One of our favorite books is Sesame Street Ready, Set, Brush! A Pop-Up Book. (affiliate link).  It has some cool pop-ups and other interactive features. We also like the basic board book Brush, Brush, Brush! (Rookie Toddler). (affiliate link) This is perfect for toddlers or children with language delays.

We have a couple tooth brushing shows that have helped our family.  First, older child loved this Elmo Brush Teeth PSA on You Tube as a toddler and now our toddler son enjoys it.   Kyle or I play it on our phones in the bathroom when we brush our toddler’s teeth and it has really motivated him. Honestly, it was a game-changer for both our kids.

Our daughter became very motivated the brush thoroughly after she watched the Sid the Science Kid (TV Series): A Brush with Teeth (episode 16).  This show is available to watch for free with Amazon Prime TV or you can purchase the video.

Swap out your supplies

Switching up the toothpaste brand to something more palatable for our daughter was essential.  She really dislikes mint and bubble gum flavored toothpaste.  We had a lot of success switching to Tom’s of Maine strawberry flavored toothpaste . There is also a fluoride-free version if that is a concern for your family.

If the brushing sensation is a problem, I know some autism moms who swear by the effectiveness of these three-sided toothbrushes . Because they touch all the surfaces of the tooth simultaneously, it reduces the duration of the brushing sensation.  We found we really need to use a  gentler touch while we would brush her teeth.

Manage time

Make the time seem more manageable using these sand timers . Sand timers have the benefit of displaying the remaining amount of time in a visual way. We love this set because the red timer is one minute and the blue timer is two minutes. Thus, you can gradually increase the amount of time by changing out the colors.

You can definitely grab ones at the Dollar Tree, too, but you’ll want to use a stopwatch to actually time the duration of the sand. I found the actual time can vary widely on the Dollar Tree timers.

When our daughter was two, her first speech therapist recommended counting for brushing teeth.  We’d brush a particular tooth and say “one-two-three-out!” On the word “out,” Kyle or I would enthusiastically remove the toothbrush from her mouth.

Our daughter loved this strategy and she’d laugh uncontrollably.  It didn’t automatically make tooth brushing easy, but it made it a bit more pleasant for her and more manageable for us.

Manage turn-taking

If your preschooler’s desire for independence is an issue, practice turn-taking.  We play “Your turn, my turn.” In short, you start by teaching turn taking when you play with your child. For example, if you’re playing trucks with your child and using the fire truck, you’ll say “my turn” and play for a few seconds then share it with him and say “your turn.” We do the same thing with board games with our older child.

This transfers to tooth brushing. You start by brushing one or two teeth saying “My turn.” Then give the tooth brush to your child for “your turn.” And switch back and forth.  This strategy takes patience and practice.

Manage the transition

If you suspect the problem with tooth brushing is tied to transitions, I have a whole post and some printables about how to managing transitions with your child.

Use an incentive chart

There are tons of free printable tooth brushing incentive charts on the internet. You can search for one of those to use with your child.

However, I scoured the internet for a tooth brushing chart that would work teach my child the steps in the routine that we struggled with.  We needed help with the sharing the toothbrush with an adult and then the amount of time needed to brush.

All the incentive charts I found lacked the information to make it accessible and manageable for my daughter. So, I made a chart and am sharing it with you!

Use visuals

Children benefit from having pictures of the routine to anchor the actions. Adults use too many words and most people are visual learners anyway.

Print out our free printable chart to teach your children these steps:

  1. The dentist wants your children to brush their teeth in the morning and at bedtime.
  2. Both your child and you both get a turn with the toothbrush because those tricky back teeth are hard to reach.
  3. A grown up counts to whatever number you decide on while he or she brushes your child’s upper and lower teeth.  Explain how this is time bound and won’t last long.
  4. Next, your child will continue brushing his or her teeth because your child is growing big enough to be more independent.
  5. Last, when the sand runs out, your child is finished.

When your child brushes in the morning, place a sticker on the chart. You can use the same chart and use small stickers twice a day, or print a chart for the morning and evening. The Dollar Tree is a great place for affordable stickers.

Making a routine stick

Once you’ve attempted to troubleshoot why tooth brushing is hard for your child, you can address those concerns with one of the strategies listed above.  For example, if you discover your child can’t stand the taste of the toothpaste, experiment with brands. Addressing your child’s concerns fully will increase his or her willingness to cooperate.

Keep your child and you accountable with a printable chart.  Incentive charts are as much for parents as they are for children in terms of accountability.  Post it your bathroom and it will remind your children and you to brush.  If it’s missing a sticker, it shows you that you need to work more on your routine.

Make sure it is convenient to brush teeth. We have charts, stickers, toothbrushes, and toothpaste in two bathrooms in our house.  We brush teeth in our downstairs bathroom right before we leave for the school bus. In the children’s bathroom upstairs, we tend to brush their teeth before bed.

Develop an anchor time for both morning and evening. For our family, we brush teeth immediately after breakfast before we put shoes on in the morning. In the evening, it’s right before bedtime stories.  If you’re consistent with the timing, it makes the routine a little easier to stick to.

Celebrate your success

Look back at how you defined the problem.  Make sure to consider what success looks like for your child.

When your child wouldn’t tolerate the toothbrush at all, allowing you to brush for twenty seconds could be success for your family at this stage of life. If your child wouldn’t brush the full two minutes, would ten additional seconds be success for your family? Maybe sharing the toothbrush with you for one turn is success or alternatively, being independent and attempting to brush on their own.

Tooth brushing used to be such a battle in our house. The printable chart has made a big difference in our family. Download it today and give it a try with your children.

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