Anyone else feel like splitting the atom would be easier than getting their toddler to properly brush their teeth? We realize that tooth brushing can be a daily battle for many of us, so we turned to George Tsangaroulis, DDS, of Greenwich Cosmetic & Family Dentistry, for help. We asked him the secrets he’s learned not only from his career but as a dad to four—and he has some great tips.
Okay—let’s jump right in! What are some easy ways to get toddlers/little kids to brush?
Being a family dentist and father of 4 kids, I can share the many experiences I’ve had with my kids, and what has worked for me:
- Brush your teeth with your child. Make it a contest to see who can create the most bubbles with their brushing, or who can brush every tooth? The minimum amount of time your children should brush is 2 minutes. Set a timer and see if they can continue for the correct amount of time.
- Let your child pick out their own toothbrush and toothpaste. A fun character may inspire them to brush and they may prefer a specific flavor or color. But be sure to monitor the amount of toothpaste they put on their toothbrush. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends using a rice-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste for kids under 3 and for children ages 3-6, use no more than a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste to help prevent cavities.
- Take turns brushing. Let your child brush their teeth in the morning, and you handle the evening. Nighttime is also a good opportunity to introduce flossing, and get them used to adding this to their daily routine.
- There are great smartphone and tablet apps with games for children to make brushing fun and interactive. Disney Magic Timer by Oral-B is a great app featuring twenty-three Disney, Marvel and Star Wars characters that will encourage your children to brush longer and help them keep track of their brushing. Brush DJ is a free toothbrush timer app that plays 2 minutes of music taken from your smart phone or tablet to encourage brushing for an effective length of time. The app also allows you to set reminders to brush twice a day, floss, and when next to see your dentist. Chomper Chums is another app that aims to gamify the brushing and flossing experience by letting kids earn digital coins to buy food for their character animal. The healthier the food, the healthier their character will become. This app teaches good oral health habits and making healthy food choices.
These are great! Anything else that you’ve realized really helps that you’d like to mention?
We use a reward chart. Each time your children brush their teeth in the morning or evening they get a sticker on their sticker chart. Encourage them to brush their teeth and complete their chart. Read books with your children about other toddlers/kids brushing their teeth and going to the dentist. When kids read about brushing teeth, the whole process is normalized, instead of feeling like a hardship they have to endure. Some books I recommend are Sugar Bugs, Brush Your Teeth Please, Open Wide: Tooth School Inside, You Think It’s Easy Being a Toothfairy?, Dentist Trip (Peppa Pig), and The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist.
If parents are really struggling with tantrums at brushing time, what should they do?
This is a great, but challenging question. Although it’s never ideal, sometimes as a parent you just have to persevere even if your child is getting upset and has a tantrum. It may sound cliché, but just simply be patient. Yes they may scream and cry but they will eventually get used to it, hopefully sooner than later. In my experience, they grow out of this after a couple of weeks. But try to make it as fun as possible with interactive games and stickers. I will even sing familiar kids songs, even though I don’t have the best voice, this will distract them and even make them smile or laugh. Sometimes you have to be creative.
What else should parents know regarding preventing cavities?
There is a supplemental topical paste, which can be used in addition to regular toothpaste after brushing. It contains calcium and phosphate minerals which buffer acidity in the mouth and help remineralize and strengthen teeth. Xylitol is another great way to fight bacteria that cause cavities, which is available in mints for kids. But if you have dogs at home, keep it away as it’s toxic!
I always recommend to parents to use an electric brush that is chargeable once kids are around the age of 4, such as a kids’ Sonicare. It cleans the teeth and gums better and keeps kids engaged while they learn to brush. Kids that have a mouth breathing habit (which leads to another topic of discussion) can have a more acidic environment in their mouth where bacteria that cause cavities thrive, and plaque can develop faster. There are exercises and ways to encourage less mouth breathing and more nasal breathing, which is also important for overall health, again another topic of discussion we review with parents. I always recommend to drink lots of water throughout the day and to limit the amount milk and juices consumed in general, and to especially avoid after brushing before bedtime.
What are the most common mistakes you see made?
Kids tend to only brush their top front teeth and not the back teeth. They also avoid brushing their lower front teeth because the gums in that area are sensitive, so we will often times see plaque in that area. Another common mistake is brushing only once a day, and/or brushing quickly for only 30 seconds. The minimum amount of time recommended is two minutes.
Also, not having an orthodontic evaluation early enough in development. It’s not just making the teeth straight, it’s more critical to develop the space in the jaws for future stability, and to help improve the airway and breathing.
At our practice we don’t just look at children’s teeth. We look at their overall health and evaluate the development of their jaws, jaw joints, and habits such as mouth breathing, thumb sucking, etc. We ask parents questions about their children that not only pertain to the health of their teeth, but also their overall health: diet and nutrition, history of sinus and ear infections, allergies they may have, daytime as well as sleep habits, which can have a significant impact on their future health, facial and behavioral development. These can be linked to sleep disordered breathing which may ultimately lead to Obstructive Sleep Apnea which is very commonly undiagnosed. We also ask parents about any existing health conditions they, or a grandparent may have because many times these conditions are hereditary. It’s always helpful to see the whole family in our practice. Conditions that currently may exist in the parent’s oral health, could potentially be an indicator for their child since many are hereditary. Our appointments are not 15-30 minutes long like many dental practices. We reserve more time so patients have our full undivided attention and to provide a thorough cleaning, personalized examinations and to educate kids and parents about prevention, and their oral as well as systemic health in order to develop beautiful, healthy smiles for a lifetime!