What is ‘Fun’ for a child?
If you were to think of ways to make anything “Fun” for a kid, what would come to mind? Think about that, because that is the best place to start when you are trying to get your child to do something they might not want to do or are struggling to commit to, something that is probably good for them but boring or tedious, a chore, like brushing their teeth!
How to Make Routine Fun
Every kid is different and enjoys different stimuli and entertainment. Customizing a routine with perks that are tailored to your child is always the most effective way to motivate them. When I think about brushing my own teeth, the last thing I think of is how fun it's going to be, and our kids are no different, so weaving “FUN” activities into something that is otherwise monotonous is a fabulous excitant.
Fun brushing avoids problems later
I brush my teeth because I've developed the discipline and foresight to know that if I don't do it, the alternative is to have dental problems, and I don't want that in my future, so I make decisions now that will support that. Kids start to develop that kind of foresight by age 5, making today's decisions with tomorrow's impact considered. Hindsight is still a major part of how kids learn. As the adults, we should provide an environment for them to learn how to brush properly
without exposing them to the harsher consequences that come from noncompliance that may be difficult to recover from. Dental pain and cavities don't have to be a part of this learning curve.
Kids process through things differently than adults do. Sometimes they dig their little toes in so deep to defy doing what they know YOU want them to do, just because they know YOU want them to do it, even if it's something they like. This is especially true of the terrible two’s – When finding a toothbrush for a toddler
seems like an uphill battle!
Early fun makes lasting habits
When oral care starts early
, like….. “new baby, I was just born a few weeks ago and I'm not even close to getting my first tooth yet” early
,........ they are much less likely to have an aversion to brushing their teeth. However, they will still have some moments they struggle through, so let's explore some strategies that may help bridge the gap during these seasons and can make tooth brushing more FUN!.
Stickers- It seems so simple and it really is honestly. Never underestimate the power of a sticker board. It's all about the praise and accolades, and while you're doing that, they are learning to do a regular hygiene routine. This has been a positive go to in my life. A cute little sticker chart that tracks any and all sorts of activities. Tooth brushing is an excellent thing to chart.
Once a week's worth of excellent brushing has been tracked, provide a special prize to commemorate the week and then start all over again. Dental offices have GREAT success with Treasure Chests. Nothing fancy, but after a good dental checkup, kids are allowed to pick a special prize from the treasure chest. This keeps up good morale and fosters excitement for coming back. Implement this at home to make oral hygiene something that not only rewards with good health but also with anticipation for a fun treasure find.
Make it into a game- This is a great “jump start” to make toothbrushing interesting or to get a reluctant child to play along. Here’s one suggestion. Remember musical chairs or the freeze game from childhood? Well grab some music and do it “toothbrush” style. You want to make sure that 2 minutes of brushing gets done, but play a fun song and when the song is paused, everyone freezes or stops, then play the music and start again.
Get Techy-If you don't mind spending a few fun dollars, head out and upgrade your child's manual toothbrush to a fun electric one. Some have buzzers, timers, flashing LED lights, characters, some even play musical tunes, and talk to you. They can be connected to the Bluetooth setting on your phone with apps that literally turn to brush into games with success trackers and virtual stickers. (There are those fun stickers again).
The Imitation Game-Remember copying what other kids did, or adults for that matter. It's still fun and works great when a child is learning to brush their own teeth. Grab your toothbrush and theirs and head to the bathroom. Go from step one all the way through brushing your own teeth, as you show your child each step. Then, hand over YOUR toothbrush and let them imitate what you did by brushing YOUR teeth. Kids think it is super fun to brush an adult's teeth. You can either choose to brush their teeth while they brush yours, or allow them to try the imitation game in their own mouths.
Bed Brushing-Confusing right? Hear me out. This is a strategy I used when one of my 3 small children was “sick” or “too tired” to get their little selves into the bathroom to brush. It is only to be used in very special circumstances, which makes it even more fun, and when all other options are exhausted. My kids LOVED it and thought they were something pretty special when they got to brush their teeth….In the bed. Here’s the setup:
*The situation= Your child is sick and feeling very unmotivated or maybe they are exhausted and too tired. The “too tired” scenario would happen in my family after one of my kids fell asleep in the car and it was bedtime once we got home. I would get 2 small cups, one with water for rinsing, and one empty for spitting. I would hold the cups for them while they were allowed this special time to actually brush their teeth while sitting in the bed. In all actuality they would usually brush a little longer than they typically do because this was such a fun and unusual privilege. But…. don't give in and let them do this outside of the few handful of situations you deem it allowable for them. If you do, they will slowly work their way toward asking for this special privilege every night.
Now, we have to talk about what NOT to do to keep tooth brushing fun and interesting. Honestly, this is almost more important. It is so much easier to start off on the right foot than to try and back track to regroup, especially with kids. Kids are very resilient but they are also sponges and will pick up so much from the adults they are around. This can be very good, and it can also be, not so good. For example, have you ever heard an adult say something along the lines of “I hate going to the dentist”, or “I just have bad teeth, it runs in my family”? What about an adult who goes to bed without brushing their teeth regularly, or never flosses and says it's because their gums always bleed? Kids hear that too, they see it also, and they will pick it up so quickly.
Don't say negative things about your own (adult) oral care experiences. Be positive and encourage your kids. If you use a toothbrush for sensitive gums, show them how soft it is so they will understand it wont hurt them either.If you think oral care is fun and going to the dentist is good for you and a good experience, most likely, they will too. Also, don't pass on assumptions to your kids about what “runs in the family” for teeth. While there are some genetic factors that can get passed on, what tends to “run in families” the most are bad habits and bad food choices and not a hereditarial disposition for “bad teeth”. Just because you had a mouthful of cavities as a kid or even as an adult, it doesn't mean your child has to share that same fate. Train them in the way…. The right way.
Toothpaste can be a BIG problem, so don't use it…... I know, I know, your jaw just dropped and you're shocked because since you were little you were taught that the right toothpaste was vitally important. Consider this, toothpaste could be WHY your child really dislikes toothbrushing so much, because let's be honest it tastes really bad, it's spicy, and most kid geared pastes and gels are overly sweet tasting. What cleans teeth while brushing is the mechanical action of the bristles as they move across the teeth and around the mouth. You can effectively remove plaque and bacteria by using a toothbrush with just warm water. However, you cannot clean away plaque in the mouth by just swiping some toothpaste around the teeth with your finger.
Toothpaste can be so distracting with all the foaming and sudsing it produces, that it gives a false sense of cleanness, when in fact, the teeth are not clean. Mint flavored pastes and gels slightly numb the tissues in the mouth, therefore affecting how “clean” the teeth feel after brushing. Fluoride, Xylitol, and other toothpaste additives that help to prevent cavities and control bacteria in the mouth can be used in other forms if needed. If you do find that your child does prefer to have a toothpaste, use a toddler paste or gel. They tend to have the least amount of ingredients and the smallest instances of distracting elements.
Don't FORCE brush your child's mouth. If you want to make sure your child will have a hatred for toothbrushing and most likely a legit fear of anyone or anything oral care related….. forced toothbrushing is your one way ticket.
I will never forget the time a “dental professional” told me that she had to sit on her son and pin him to the ground, while he screamed, so she could brush his teeth. I was shocked at this admittance on her part. Still am. However, I truly believe that this is a reality for many exhausted parents, especially parents dealing with challenges that are sensory or autistically related. But, this is the WRONG way to battle through challenging activities and it needs to be re-evaluated.
You have to completely overhaul everything at this point and start at square one and will most likely need to involve a “pediatric trained” dental professional or a speech and language therapist. In my practice when I encountered a child who would aggressively reist any form of brushing, we would start by playing games and I would introduce the child to toothbrushing a stuffed animal, and slowly over time gain their trust. Sometimes this meant it might take me months to get to a point of fully brushing them or them brushing on their own, but that's just what you have to do. Even if this means sometimes just a few teeth get brushed before some resistance sets in, that is OK. If you keep pressing on in a positive manner, it will get better.
So there you have it, some fun toothbrushing ideas to encourage healthy habits and routines, with a side of cautionary tales to consider. For a lifetime of healthy smiles.