Tips for Teaching Children to Brush Their Teeth on Their Own

As children reach toddlerhood (i.e., age 1 to 3 years), they begin to increasingly show signs of independence. Their strong desire to complete tasks independently is often displayed in activities of daily living like getting dressed and brushing their teeth. Because young children do not always have the concentration or control to brush their teeth by themselves, parents need to find ways to encourage their child’s self-help skills while supervising their efforts. Consider the following tips to help teach your child about the toothbrushing process and to build their confidence as they learn to brush their teeth on their own.

Brushing Basics

Toothbrush

Ensure your child has a soft-bristled toothbrush with a thick handle and a small brushing head. Your child may be able to choose from a variety of kid-friendly toothbrushes that are available in vibrant colors and have fun characters on the handle.

Toothpaste

Select a toothpaste that contains fluoride and has a taste and texture that your child likes. If your child does not respond well to one toothpaste, try another with a different flavor.

Brushing Angle

For the outer surfaces and most inner surfaces of their teeth, teach your child to hold their toothbrush horizontally at a 45-degree angle. For the front, inner surfaces of their teeth, teach your child to hold their toothbrush vertically across their teeth. For the chewing surfaces, your child may lay the toothbrush flat across those teeth to brush.

Brushing Motion

Show your child how to brush along the line where their teeth and gums meet in short, circular strokes or long, up-and-down strokes. Both the circular and up-and-down techniques are acceptable, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).

Brushing Time

Watch the clock, set the timer, play a song, or use a mobile app to help keep your child engaged for at least 2 minutes while they brush their teeth.

Toothbrush Replacement

Replace your child’s toothbrush every 3 to 4 months, or replace your child’s toothbrush sooner if the bristles appear to be visibly frayed.

Brushing Expectations by Age

From birth to first tooth (around 6 months old), use a clean, damp washcloth or gauze to wipe your child’s gums clean after each feeding.

Upon the arrival of your child’s first tooth (around 6 months) to 3 years old, apply a smear of toothpaste (approximately the size of a grain of rice) to your child’s toothbrush and begin to brush your child’s teeth twice a day—once in the morning and once at night. Begin to gently floss between your child’s teeth when they have two teeth that touch.

When your child is between the ages of 3 years to 6 years old, apply a pea-sized amount of toothpaste to your child’s toothbrush, and brush 2 times a day for at least 2 minutes. Assist your child with their teeth brushing (and flossing) until they can rinse and spit out the toothpaste rather than swallowing it.

How to Teach Your Child to Brush Their Teeth

If your child has learned to rinse and spit out their toothpaste instead of swallowing the toothpaste (usually around 5 to 6 years old), it may be time for you to encourage them to brush their teeth on their own. Here are some techniques you can use to help your child learn to independently brush their teeth.

Break the process into small steps. Teach your child to brush their teeth in sections. Focus on the outer surface, the inner surface, and chewing surface of one quadrant (i.e., upper left, lower left, upper right, and lower right) for 30 seconds before moving on to the next quadrant.

Show and tell. Prepare your toothbrush with toothpaste and stand or kneel next to your child. You can face your child or both of you can face the mirror. Direct your child to copy your movements and the sections you are focusing on as you both brush your teeth together. You may use analogies like the train wheels moving across the train tracks.

Hold their hand. Wrap your hand around your child’s hand to help guide the way your child holds their toothbrush and the way they move the toothbrush across their gums and teeth.

Take turns. Encourage your child to brush their teeth first while you supervise them. Use your words to help guide them on where to brush. Let them know that you plan to “check their work” when they finish. Use the “checking” stage to brush the areas they may have missed.

Sing a song. Sing a song or create your own song to a familiar melody (e.g., Row, Row, Row Your Boat) to help explain to your child the steps for brushing their teeth.

Consider your child’s temperament and learning style when determining which teaching technique to use. Feel free to try different techniques or combine techniques until you find the model that works for you and your child. With your continued guidance, your child will establish a consistent oral health routine, maintain good toothbrushing practices, and prepare to brush their teeth by themself. When you teach your child how to properly care for their primary teeth, it can set the stage for the health of their adult teeth and their oral hygiene practices for years to come.

Additional Resources

The Give a Kids A Smile® Program in association with the ADA (American Dental Association, 2020) provides resource sheets for parents and caregivers. Here are additional healthy habits that they offer parents and caregivers to consider as they help their child maintain a healthy smile and oral health.

  • Begin taking your child to dental visits when their first tooth appears or by the time they turn 1 year old, whichever comes first.
  • Encourage your child to eat healthy foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, lean meats) to protect their teeth’s health. Limit cavity-causing treats like candy, sugary beverages, sodas, snacks, and sticky sweets.
  • Encourage your child, who is at least 1 year old, to drink water between meals. The ADA suggests that water with the fluoride is the best drink for your child’s teeth.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Division of Oral Health offers activities and resources for infants and children who are up to 4 years old. Find the resource here: https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/Library/ML-025192.pdf

The ADA provides several resources to help you take care of your child’s teeth through their Mouth Healthy™ campaign. A few of these resources can be found at the following:

References

American Dental Association. (2020). Tiny smiles. https://www.ada.org/-/media/project/ada-organization/ada/ada-org/files/resources/public-programs/give-kids-a-smile/ada-gkasts-eng_dental_professionals.pdf

American Dental Association. (2022, October 7). Toothbrushes.https://www.ada.org/en/resources/research/science-and-research-institute/oral-health-topics/toothbrushes

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2023, April 26). Brushing your child’s teeth. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/publication/brushing-your-childs-teeth

Harrisburg Smiles. (2020, October 22). How to teach your child to brush their teeth—Your guide to the process. https://harrisburgsmilesdental.com/how-to-teach-your-child-to-brush-their-teeth-your-guide-to-the-process/

Jana, L. A., & Shu, J. (2021, May 25). Let the brushing games begin. Healthychildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/oral-health/Pages/Let-the-Brushing-Games-Begin.aspx

Oraljel Kids. (n.d.). Six creative ways to get your kids to brush their teeth. https://www.orajelkids.com/en/resources/six-creative-ways-to-get-your-kids-to-brush-their-teeth

Shahangian, J. (2017, January 13). How do I get my preschooler to let me brush her teeth? Healthychildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician/Pages/How-do-I-get-my-preschooler-to-let-me-brush-her-teeth.aspx

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