How to motivate your child to brush their teeth

tips to make brushing teeth fun

By Monica Guthrie 

Sometimes my youngest son is perfect. He does everything I ask and he does it with lots and lots of laughter and smiles. It fills me with joy and it’s those moments that I’m truly happy to be a mother.

But sometimes my son is … well… a child. Take, for example, our nightly teeth-brushing ritual. It’s the same thing every night. About a half hour before bed we start to wind down – and the first thing we do is brush our teeth.

While occasionally he cooperates, most of the time you’d think I asked my sweet angelic child to amputate his leg. The tantrum begins along with the whining “I caaaaaaaaaan’t.” 

I could force my child to brush his teeth, but I don’t want to. I’d much rather he WANT to brush his teeth. So what’s an exasperated parent to do?

Eric Sexton, a dentist in Oklahoma suggest trying to make the task as fun as possible – which sounds obvious right? Well sometimes the obvious is hard to see when your thought process is clouded by the sounds of a screaming toddler. So Sexton offers a few suggestions.

“Making it a game, using a sing-songy rhyme, or talking about how strong it makes your teeth are good places to start,” said Dr. Sexton.

We have a toothpaste-spitting game that my son enjoys. We start brushing and once there is a lot of toothpaste he has to try and make the largest toothpaste spit. The bigger it is, the cooler it is. Sometimes it’s gross and this generally means I have a mirror to clean once it’s done, but sometimes that’s just the price to pay.

Also, at our home we use a made-up song to the tune “Row, row, row your boat” to help make it fun and also to make sure we brush for the right amount of time (we sing it many, many time). So our song goes like this:

“Brush, brush, brush your teeth

Brush them nice and clean

Scrub the bottom, scrub the top

And places in-between.”

It’s simple – and we do have to sing it a lot but it’s something that works for us.

We also use “fun” as a motivator. Because we brush our teeth half an hour before bed, the sooner he gets done, the sooner he can get back to his toys and play for a few minutes, or read a book, before it’s time to go to bed.

Another suggestion is to model how to brush. Our youngest likes to imitate others and when I brush my teeth, he wants to brush his. So sometimes I take my brush and “brush” my teeth, or let him brush my teeth. Then it’s my turn to brush his.

But regardless of what plans we try, there are always moments when nothing will work and the tantrum comes anyway. It’s easy to want to give in but Dr. Sexton encourages parents to stick with it.

“Don't be discouraged,” said Dr. Sexton. “Good oral health is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember, your teeth don't have to last forever, just your whole life.”


Monica K. Guthrie is an Army brat, an Army veteran (Rock of the Marne!) and now an Army spouse with two boys. She is currently the media relations officer for the public affairs office at Fort Sill, Okla., and writes a weekly column called the Okie Bucket List. She also has a photography and graphic design business, Pro Deo Creations, that she maintains between potty training and kissing scraped knees. 

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