“My child likes to hold the toothbrush but screams when I brush for her”. Rest assured, parents, you are not alone! This behavior starts for most children by 12 months, and may last until a child is 3 or 4 (longer if brushing is not a routine task at home). This is not an indication that brushing hurts, or that a child is in pain. This is a normal and appropriate manifestation of a child trying to control their situation. Children are learning to do things by themselves at these ages which is great, and on track with developmental norms, but it can become a struggle for toothbrushing (among other things), especially for children that are strong willed. There are a few things a parent can keep in mind when dealing with brushing associated tantrums.
Remember that brushing your child’s teeth does not hurt him or her, and not brushing will cause more pain in the future. Try to think about tooth brushing the way you think about other things that have to be done, whether a child likes it or not. For example, many children do not like having to be buckled into their car seats. We do it anyway because we know it is for their own safety, (and doesn’t hurt). Tooth brushing should be thought of the same way; something that must be done, and will not cause psychological trauma later in life because you forced the tooth brushing to keep your child healthy.
We have learned from educators that when given a choice, children feel more in control of their situation and are more likely to do what is asked of them. Parents should control the choices, however. For example, you can say, “Mom is going to help you brush, but would you like me to brush your top teeth or your bottom teeth first?” Or you can say, “It’s time to brush our teeth, would you like to do it in my bathroom or yours?” Allowing a child to choose a song or video to listen to while brushing, or reading an extra book if you only have to ask once to brush are things you can try. This takes practice, but soon it becomes second nature. Kids will be more willing to do what we ask when the option to say “no” is not there. Giving your child a turn to brush can be helpful, but parents should always have a turn as well to make sure it is done properly. Having your child brush on their own or chew on the toothbrush is not effective enough brushing to remove the sticky plaque on their teeth.
For the infant or toddler who hates brushing, it is perfectly okay and recommended to force the tooth brushing routine. Doing this consistently will teach a child that mom or dad make the rules, and they are still ok after the brushing is over. Giving a big hug and kiss after brushing reassures a child that you love and care for them, even when they are mad. This in turn, teaches coping skills and establishes the comfort of routines.