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How to Get a Toddler to Brush Their Teeth (Without Throwing a Fit)

by krismkoch

Every night, James cries and throws a fit when I brush his teeth. He usually loves holding the toothbrush himself and pretending to brush, but he hates when I go in to give him a good brushing afterward. The thing is, I put him through this torture every night because I don’t want him to have baby cavities or a grey tooth — all horror stories I’ve heard on my mom Facebook group. But the screaming and crying always make me feel awful, or if it’s a bad day, frustrated beyond belief. So I crowd sources some tips from other moms and parenting books on how to get a toddler to brush their teeth in hopes of making this two minutes of our lives much less of a nightmare. I really want to figure out the right way how to get a toddler to brush their teeth because I’m concerned that since James wiggles and shuts his mouth and bites that we’re not given him as thorough a brushing as he should get. Here are the tried and true tips of my mom tribe for how to get a toddler to brush their teeth that have helped me make tooth-brushing time a little less painful (hint: Elmo is involved).

The Elmo Brush Your Teeth Song

Ok, so James isn’t a huge TV or video watcher. I know in the long run, this is probably a blessing, but it sucks when we are on an airplane or at a restaurant and just want to keep him quiet and still for 20 minutes. The only thing he’ll watch are the YouTube videos of his music class and even those, only keep him occupied for 10 minutes tops. So I was skeptical about this Elmo brushing teeth video that almost every mom I asked recommended. Plus, I got James Tickle Me Elmo for Christmas and Dakota is a bigger fan. But lo and behold, this seems to work…sometimes.

Take Turns

You hold the brush, then he does.The first time she brushes herself, the second time I brush. This really works when James is in the mood to be in control. He still cries when it’s my turn but it’s much less of a struggle than it is when I just try to do it all. I read that toddlers really like to have some control and this gives him control. Since he’s still too little to do a thorough job, I then have to swipe in and do it. We’re not at the point where he readily hands over the toothbrush for “my turn”, but at least he’s starting to learn to do it himself and he’s not resistant to that part of the ordeal.

Play Copycat

Brush your teeth together and show them how it’s done. Let them even brush your teeth. This has worked much better. James loves to watch me brush my teeth — he thinks it’s funny — and he’s at a stage where he loves to do everything we’re doing himself. Imitation phase, I guess? So this works really well and helps show him how to do it. He also loves trying to doing it on me, which is fun and funny for him. Sadly, when it’s my turn, he still struggles, but it’s getting better and I like that, this way, the entire experience isn’t negative, so he doesn’t have a completely negative relationship with brushing his teeth.

Try a Light-Up Toothbrush

Admittedly, I haven’t tried this one yet, but I have no doubt it will definitely make it more fun for him. James loves light-up toys and ones that make sounds. This is going to be my next investment for him. I’ll let you know how it goes, but a lot of my mom friends (albeit with slightly older children) suggested using a light-up toothbrush. When James was younger, we tried wipes (which my nanny tried and said taste awful though so do with that what you will) or a finger toothbrush. The finger toothbrush was much easier to navigate but now James bites me too much to use (though when I’m really frustrated I’ll use it). So we just use a regular mini toothbrush right now and this is the one we used when he was a baby baby.

Try Different Toothpastes

Obviously check with your doc, but it’s recommended that you stick to non-flouride for now, but trying different flavors could help. I’ve been thinking that recently. Maybe James just doesn’t like the flavor of the most recent one we bought (although he really protests when it’s time to do his back teeth and doesn’t mind when he’s doing it when we first put on the toothpaste, so it’s probably just difficult toddler syndrome) but still. It’s worth trying some different flavors. If there’s one your toddler prefers, it’ll make things go a lot smoother.  Here’s the toothpaste we’re using currently.

Make It a Game

Games always make painful things better with toddlers, right? One mom suggested pretending he has to get things on his teeth off with the toothbrush. This hasn’t worked on James yet — he’s a little too young too understand what the game is —but I find anytime we can turn something into a game, he’s more likely to do it, so I may try it when he gets a bit older.


We’re not here yet — James is just too young, but my friends with slightly older kids (in the 2.5-3 range), will use sticker charts. So every time they brush their teeth they get a sticker and then they get some sort of treat when they fill up the chart. Or they just get the joy of having a sticker, which when they’re really young, might work?

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