Brushing teeth can be particularly tough for kids with sensory and/or motor control issues. They may hate the feel of the brush on their gums or their teeth, or they may hate the vibrations of an electric toothbrush. Or they may find the taste of toothpaste impossible to tolerate.
Give your kid a sense of control
First explain why dental hygiene is important. If your child understands the benefits of toothbrushing, you may get better buy in.
Allow your child to experience the toothbrush on other parts of his body before asking him to put it in his mouth. Let him feel it in his hands, then on his arms, his neck, his cheeks. By slowly working your way towards his mouth, it will be less frightening when you finally ask him to open his mouth and let you brush his teeth.
Letting your child brush his own teeth will also allow him to anticipate when the toothbrush and toothpaste are going into his mouth, which will make it easier for him to brace himself. He may not get his teeth as clean as you do, but it’s a process, and giving him the opportunity to do it himself will build his sense of self-competence.
Allow him to pick out his own toothbrush. He might be more willing to brush his teeth with a toothbrush in his favorite color or with a cool design on it.
Brush with softer bristles
If your kid has trouble with the sensation of the bristles on her teeth, she may prefer a toothbrush with soft bristles. Other solutions include using a washcloth, a cotton swab, or your finger. Or, you can try a silicone fingertip brush with nubs instead of bristles.
Many kids find vibrations soothing, and enjoy brushing with an electric toothbrush. If you want the best of both worlds, you can use an electric toothbrush with silicone bristles.
For kids with developing motor skills, using an adaptive toothbrush with three heads that allow you to brush the top and both sides of your teeth at once, without tilting the brush, can make it much easier to do a good job with dental hygiene.
How do I do this?
Some kids really don’t know how to brush their teeth. Kids love it when you do things with them, so brushing your teeth together can be a great way to show her what to do. Stand next to her while you both look in the mirror, and use exaggerated motions so it’s very clear what you are doing. Wait for her to imitate what you are doing before moving to the next step. Your child can also practice brushing the teeth of a doll or puppet.
If it’s the taste of the toothpaste, you may want to let your child try different flavors until he finds one he likes. Buy a small tube of a number of different kinds of toothpaste, and figure you are going to throw away a lot of toothpaste. Then your child can try the different options and tell you which ones are tolerable. You can put a small dab on the index finger, and have him touch his tongue to it and indicate how tolerable it is on a scale from 1 (tastes like raw sewage) to 5 (divine). I’d make sure to give him a HUGE REWARD for being willing to do these tests!
Some toothpastes foam more than others. If your kid is having trouble keeping the toothpaste in his mouth while brushing, a non-foaming toothpaste might work better.
If toothpaste is Right Out, you might consider using a fluoride rinse. If your child won’t swish the liquid around in her mouth, she might tolerate having you brush the fluoride rinse on her teeth.
Believe it or not, some kids have trouble with the temperature of the water. Try lukewarm water if you think this may be the issue.
This is going to take forever!
For other kids, it’s the time – they don’t realize how long 2 minutes really is. You can play a song while they are brushing or use a timer to help them think about how long they’ve been brushing.
Teach the skills one at a time
If your kid is struggling with every aspect of brushing his teeth, think about teaching the skills one at a time. Start by asking him to brush his teeth with a wet toothbrush (without toothpaste). Once he’s got the motor skills down, find a toothpaste he likes, and have him start brushing using that toothpaste. Layer the skills on, one at a time so it isn’t overwhelming.
Remember: Kids do well when they can! Your job is to figure out what is hard about toothbrushing, and help your child master the skills while respecting his or her profile.
Do you need help with your child? Sarah Wayland can help you figure out how to support your child via classes, Special Needs Care Navigation services, Parent Coaching, or as your certified Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) consultant.
I just saw a post on a Facebook group in which the poster said her child was sad that his day was coming to an end. She separated toothbrushing from going to sleep by having him brush his teeth half an hour before bed time, followed by reading together. Now her son has something to look forward to after brushing!