Do you dread bedtime because your toddler refuses to brush their teeth? Does your child scream and tantrum the moment they see their toothbrush?
The stress of balancing your little one’s hygienic and social/emotional needs can wear on a caregiver night after night.
Toddler gets hysterical when brushing teeth? You’re not to blame!
I know firsthand the turmoil bedtime can bring when you have a toddler who flat-out refuses to brush their teeth. First, I want to tell you this is not your fault.
My own two kids have been polar opposites when it comes to teeth brushing in their toddler years. I’m talking full-on clenched jaw mode vs. grinning ear to ear every night! Every child is perfectly unique.
Why your toddler refuses to brush their teeth
A child’s innate like or dislike for brushing teeth stems from their unique temperament and sensory preferences. This is not a reflection of you or your parenting!
Furthermore, teeth brushing tends to be most difficult during the toddler years. Toddler’s brains lack emotional regulation to cope with such dislikes and just want to be in control.
So go ahead and permit yourself to tune out friends and family who love to tell you that brushing their toddler’s teeth is a breeze.
Know that having a toddler who refuses to brush their teeth is a super common struggle and won’t last forever.
What to do when toddler refuses to brush their teeth: 6 Key tips for positive parents
#1 Establish a visual routine
Having a regular sequence of events leading up to a consistent bedtime is key. But having a visual representation of that routine can make all the difference in reducing nighttime power struggles.
Rather than demanding or begging your child to put their PJs on or brush their teeth, you can simply ask, “What’s next on your routine chart?”
In the words of Dr. Jane Nelson, allow the routine chart to “become the boss.”
Key Tip: Positive parenting relies on natural rewards and consequences over bribes and punishments to foster internal motivation in kids.
In other words, skip the sticker chart! Rather, place a preferred activity right after teeth brushing on your toddler’s routine chart. Then state, “I’ll know you’re ready for our bedtime story once your teeth are brushed.”
#2 Provide “voice & choice”
Remember that many toddlers dislike teeth brushing because they feel out of control. Finding ways to put some control back into those tiny hands can go a long way!
Here are some ideas to empower your child with a voice to make their own choices:
- “Which toothbrush will you use tonight, red or blue?”
- “Should we brush your teeth in the bathtub or at the sink?”
- “Who will brush your teeth first tonight, me or you?”
- “Which flavor toothpaste would you like, strawberry or orange?”
#3 Play your way through it
Play is perhaps the most underused yet most effective positive parenting tool!
Toddlers often resist starting their bedtime routine because it means playtime is over. But what if they could keep playing and get ready for bed?
Here are two of my favorite ways to make teeth-brushing fun.
- Brush-a-friend: Perfect for younger toddlers! Invite your little one to bring his or her favorite toy to the teeth brushing party! Have your toddler brush the “friend’s” teeth first. If your toddler is reluctant to go next, use your silliest voice and have the friend ask them to go next.
- Toothbrush “Pictionary”: Older toddlers love this guessing game! Tell them you will “draw” a character from their favorite book or TV show on their teeth while you brush. Slowly give clues and allow them to guess when you’re finished brushing E.g., “He’s has stripes..wears a red sweater….rides a trolley…Daniel Tiger!”
#4 Offer a challenge they can’t refuse
Healthy competition is hard to resist for many toddlers! Attach a fun challenge to teeth-brushing time that they won’t want to miss out on.
Here are two of my favorite teeth-brushing challenges:
- Physical Challenge: “Do you think I can brush your teeth while standing on one foot the whole time? What about with one eye closed? ”
- Beat the Clock: “Do you think we can finish brushing our teeth in 2 minutes or 3 minutes tonight? Help me set the timer and let’s find out!” (Tip: Only allow the timer to run if your toddler is actively brushing and always allow enough time to properly clean their teeth!)
#5 Find a two-minute tooth brushing song
Having a catchy theme song for tooth-brushing time can help bring spark positive energy in your toddler’s bedtime routine.
Here are some of my favorite two-minute (or so) songs for encouraging toddlers to brush their teeth.
Brush to the Beat (Featuring Mickey Mouse) by Disney Junior
Brush Your Teeth by Super Simple Songs
#6 Take a break
If you’ve slipped into a power struggle or your toddler becomes hysterical, know it’s perfectly okay to back away for a bit.
Once we’re in a situation of trying to exert control or force our child to comply we’ve often lost sight of our positive parenting goals.
So what does a positive parent do? Should you force your toddler to brush their teeth?
- Positive parents opt for “connection” before “correction.” Take a moment to step away and give your little one some love. Validate their feelings of anger or frustration before revisiting your teeth brushing boundary.
- Check-in on your possible feelings of frustration before brushing your toddler’s teeth. Note that toddlers are quick to pick up on our energy and feeling “forced” often fuels more long-term resistance.
- Allow for natural and logical consequences to unfold. Remember that preferred activity from tip #1? If your toddler refuses to brush their teeth or it takes a very long time to get there, there will be less time (or not enough time) for that fun activity.
- Avoid arbitrary consequences (e.g., taking away TV time the next day) that are unrelated to teeth brushing. Toddlers have a tough time linking cause & effect, especially when they are completely unrelated!
- To learn more about a positive approach to parenting and discipline, I invite you to take my free 30-day challenge.
Oral Hygiene for Children with Special Needs
Teeth brushing can come with a unique set of challenges for toddlers and children with certain health conditions and disabilities.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Division of Oral Health offers a free, comprehensive oral hygiene guide for families of children with special needs.
You can access the PDF here to learn more about oral health as it relates to:
- Tube feeding
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Cerebral Palsy
- Down Syndrome
- Cleft lip & palette
Note: This PDF link is subject to change and is not directly affiliated with or endorsed by Such a Little While.
The last thing you need to know when your toddler refuses to brush their teeth
Shortly after I had my firstborn, someone told me “almost everything is a phase” during these early years.
These tough toddler moments never feel temporary when you’re in the thick of them, but most often they are.
Truth: Teeth brushing got a whole lot easier with my jaw-clenching toddler once I committed to positive parenting practices. Was there a one-size-fits-all solution to make it through 3 years of toddler tooth brushing? Not exactly…
Mix it up: Stay responsive to your child’s unique needs & interests
The key to these positive parenting strategies is to stay connected with your child and continuously respond to their evolving needs.
In other words, your toddler may respond well to one strategy when they’re one but may need a fresh approach at age two.
Also, for a few weeks, they may only want to play our suggested teeth brushing games with Sesame Street characters, and then it may suddenly switch to Paw Patrol. This is perfectly ok!
Stay flexible, take breaks when you need to, and remember… they are only little for such a little while.
You’ve got this!