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Brushes, Battles, and Bargains

Brushes, Battles, and Bargains
By Emilee Peeples Milling

“We let him spit in the toilet,” she whispered.

“What was that?” I asked.

“After he brushes his teeth, we let him spit in the toilet. It was his dad’s idea.”

As a pediatric dentist, I have the pleasure of hearing parents’ creative tactics on how they fight the tooth brushing battle. As a mom, I also have the pleasure of fighting toothbrushing battles of my own. I know my language seems a bit aggressive using words like “battle” and “fight,” but if you have ever tried to brush a two-year old’s teeth, you feel like you are amid World War III. I have learned that to make oral home care successful, I must adjust my game-plan depending on how my child responds. And you can also develop strategies to fit your child’s needs.

Ouch! Teething

If your child is very young, six to twelve months old, start cleaning his teeth during bath times with a warm washcloth. At this age, everything goes in his mouth anyway, so give him the washcloth and let him play with it in his mouth. Since many children are teething during this time, here’s something that might help. Soak a corner of a washcloth in water and put it in the freezer for a few hours. A child can hold on to the dry side and chew the cold part to relieve teething discomfort.

Creative Brushing

The current American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry guidelines recommend using a smear of fluoridated toothpaste on a small-headed soft-bristled brush as the first tooth erupts. Although this sounds early, the AAPD has found the zero to two-year-old group to be highly susceptible to developing cavities due to frequent snacking and lack of ability to cooperate with home cleaning. To get your young child accustomed to a toothbrush, have him watch you brush your teeth. Also, buy several toothbrushes and leave them in places for him to find and become curious about. Some places could be the car seat, in front of the TV, or in the highchair after dinner. Next, begin incorporating toothbrushing into his routine with a smear of fluoridated toothpaste.

You need to know your enemy, aka your child. What motivates him? When he begins to resist tooth brushing, does he like certain types of rewards, such as words of encouragement, brushing his teddy bear’s teeth first, ahem… bribery? What works one day may not work the next day. The difficult part is being creative and shifting your tactics based on his response.

Flossers are Friends

Flossing is an integral part of dental home care and should be started when the teeth begin to touch, usually around age two to five years old. If flossing seems daunting, do not set your expectations too high. Gradually get your child familiar with a tooth flosser. I have found flossers are easier for parents when it comes to flossing their child’s teeth. You can use similar approaches to starting flossing as you did with brushing. At this age, sticker charts work well.

Careful: Sugar

Lastly, diet plays a role in children developing cavities. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in 2017 saying children under the age of one should not drink fruit juice. Juice is loaded with sugar and is one of the biggest causes of cavities that I have found with my patients, mainly due to frequent sipping throughout the day. Most parents understand candy and soda can cause cavities, but other foods to be cautious with are fruit gummies, raisins, and granola bars. They stick to teeth and are difficult to remove even with brushing.

I hope you have found these suggestions helpful. And when nothing else works, see if your child wants to spit in the toilet.


Emilee Peeples Milling received her doctorate from the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry in 2014 and graduated from the University of Florida. Following graduation, she returned to her hometown Jackson to join Young and Milling Pediatric Dentistry. Find her at or visit

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