Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Learning

My 15mth son has begun to clamp his mouth shut when it is time to brush his teeth.

I am beginning to dread getting my son ready for bed as he just refuses to have his teeth brushed. He will open his mouth for me and then clamps tightly shut onto the brush and wont let me do a thing. He thinks it is hilarious and shakes his head from side to side with a big grin on his face. When he first began to do this I did laugh with him but now I am not sure how to get him to stop this each and every evening. I am worried his teeth will not be cleaned properly so have to resort to all sorts of antics to get him to open up again. When he does I can only do a quick brush round as he wriggles and squeals so and I am worried I will hurt his mouth with the brush. What can I do to stop this evening pantomime?

Now your son has learned that he can really get to you over brushing his teeth he will continue to do so unless you turn the situation on its head. Having laughed with him he will continue this behaviour every night unless you radically change your approach to teeth brushing. Begin by buying a new toothbrush for him. They come in all shapes and colours. You may be lucky and find one featuring a favourite story or cartoon character.

Recently onto the market are “Teach me toothbrushes” which have a small head and a guard on the handle to prevent the brush being inserted too far into the mouth and causing damage. Present his new toothbrush to him with a flourish and put a whole new strategy into play.

Use a very small smear of low -fluoride toothpaste on the brush as small children will often suck off the toothpaste. Swallowing too much fluoride toothpaste can lead to fluorosis which causes white spots or patches on the tooth enamel whilst the teeth are forming. Dental experts point out that too much toothpaste on the brush will cause your toddler to salivate and so want to swallow, so really use the smallest amount possible.

The position you adopt to clean teeth can really help. Many parents make the mistake of standing in front of their toddler and holding his chin. This position can lead to the mouth being hurt if the toddler moves at the wrong moment. The head of the brush may dig into his inner cheek which can be painful. Ask your son to lie down on the floor and place his head on your lap. This should be far more comfortable for him. He has something to lie on that is soft and you can see into his mouth better. If he does wriggle it is easier for you to keep control of the brush, and it is far harder for him to escape completely.

Use a clean finger to slip inside his inner cheek and begin to brush the front teeth. Depending how he reacts to all these changes you may be able to do a much better job right from the beginning, or you may have to work each day at moving further and further around inside his mouth as he becomes more used to the procedure. Getting him to hold a brush in his hand whilst you do this may help. Try not to rush the job, even if you feel in the beginning that not all his teeth are being brushed. You are getting him to co-operate with you so that each day you can move gradually further and further towards the back of his mouth. Remember to praise him for being co-operative, even if this has only lasted a few minutes.

Using silly songs and rhymes can help. There are plenty of short rhymes and jingles about teeth in children’s song and poetry books, or just sing songs he knows.

Turning this time into a game can help, too. Pretend to be an animal or vehicle, especially if he has a favourite one. Just in the way you use coercion to get him to eat at times, you may have to resort to this in order for him to have his teeth brushed properly each day. Although you may play games to get him to co-operate he needs to gradually learn that brushing his teeth is something which happens every day, twice a day. Until he is old enough to do this job effectively on his own, which is around seven years of age, he will need your close supervision. The sooner he accepts that this is part of his daily routine the easier it will be for both of you.

If he still continues to play up then brush his teeth using one hand and hold a hand mirror in the other so he can see what is being done to him. He may then feel more in control of the situation and so co-operate.

Toddlers love to copy so let him see you brushing your teeth in the morning. If you are not already brushing his teeth after breakfast you should begin to do so. If you don’t want to take your son upstairs again after breakfast have a second set of brushes and paste for yourself and him in a downstairs bathroom. Although your son is far too young to clean his teeth properly on his own let him have a turn at it. Offer him his toothbrush whilst you brush your own teeth at the same time. Show him how to use small circles across the tooth’s surface, not up and down or along the teeth. Once he has had an attempt and you have finished your own get him to lie on the floor, in the same way that he does after his bath at night, so that you can then clean his teeth yourself.