How to get a toddler to brush teeth!

One of the most-often asked questions in parenting groups that I’m in is “My child WILL NOT let me brush his/her teeth. How can I get through this?”


Oh my goodness; I feel your pain.


We went through this too when my daughter was about 15 months old, and it persisted for several weeks on and off before we finally figured it out.


I would say “OK, it’s time to brush your teeth!” and she’d say “NOOOOOO! I don’t wanna!” and collapse in a writhing heap on the floor.

The usual advice

The parenting experts tell us to offer choices, and there are lots of these available with toothbrushing:


“Would you like the pink toothbrush or the orange one?”


“Would you like the flashing toothbrush or the one that doesn’t flash?”


“Would you like the strawberry toothpaste or the bubblegum flavor?”



And when the choices don’t work, there are the games:


“Would you like to brush my teeth before I brush yours?”


“Can I look for the food you’ve eaten today in your mouth?”


“Can I look for wild animals in your mouth?”


“Should we brush Tiger’s teeth first?”


“Would you like to brush teeth in the bath?”


But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many choices you give and games you play the child still says “no.”  Also, we really have no idea why the child won’t cooperate, which isn’t helping us at all.


And I find tooth brushing an especially hard place to set a limit because, really, their teeth are not going to fall out if they don’t brush this one time. But if they get into a habit of not brushing, you could find yourself in real trouble.


So where do you go from here? Do we have to hold the child down and force the brush into their mouth?
Thankfully, no…


Psychology to the rescue!

There’s a psychological theory that can help us to understand what’s going on here: it’s called Self-Determination Theory. In short, SDT says that all people have a need to feel autonomous (having freedom to choose what we do), competent (having abilities and skills) and connected (having warm and loving relationship with someone).


The more of these needs are satisfied, the more likely a person is to work with us to achieve our mutual goals.


So what do we do to overcome the tooth brushing problem?


1 Next time your child refuses to brush their teeth, do what parenting coach Robin Einzig recommends: Drop the Rope. You can’t have a power struggle if only one of you is pulling on the rope. (Don’t worry; we’re not going to do this every time we need to brush teeth!)


2. Say “I can see this is hard for you, and it’s tough for me too. I don’t want to force you to brush your teeth. Let’s not brush teeth tonight; let’s get ready for bed, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” Chances are your child will be stoked to get out of tooth brushing for the night, and will willingly cooperate with the rest of the bedtime routine.


3. Continue with the normal bedtime routine: stories/songs/kisses. There is no punishment for not brushing teeth. You are showing your child that you love them unconditionally, even when you disagree (and are thus developing your connectedness).


4. The next day, look for a time when you’re both in a good mood, relaxed, well-fed, and not in a hurry to go anywhere. Sit close to your child – perhaps even next to each other or them on your lap so you can hug while you talk.’


Say “Hey, can we talk about tooth brushing?” (Wait for acknowledgement or assent of some kind.) “It’s really important to me that we brush your teeth twice a day, because if we don’t do that, your teeth could get holes in them and they might actually fall out. Brushing helps to keep them clean so those things don’t happen. I notice you’ve been finding tooth brushing really hard lately, and it’s hard for me when you find it hard. Can you help me to understand why you don’t want to brush your teeth?”


5. Listen to the response, even if you think what they are saying is ridiculous. Things we think are ridiculous are often really important to children.


6. Say: “I wonder if we can think of some ways that we can make tooth brushing acceptable for you?”


By asking this question you are saying that you trust your child’s competence at generating some ideas for ways to solve a problem and that your child’s autonomy is important to you – you truly want their help in solving this problem.


Boom! We covered all three SDT components.


7. Brainstorm.
a. If your child is on the younger side (perhaps ~2 years old), you’ll likely need to provide the ideas for things that could make tooth brushing acceptable. Use what you heard when your child told you why they don’t like brushing their teeth to spark ideas. Think outside the box – no ideas is a bad one. Consider writing the ideas down on a piece of paper – this helps your child to see that you treat their ideas seriously.


b. If you start doing this kind of thing when your child is around two, by the time they’re three or a bit older, they will be able to start generating ideas alongside you. Write them all down.


8. Cross out any of your child’s ideas that won’t work for you, and explain why as you do this. Read your ideas to your child, and ask them which ones won’t work for them. Cross these out.


9. Select from or adjust the remaining options as needed to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution.


What you did here was not only solve an immediate problem of tooth brushing, but you simultaneously scaffolded your child’s ability to generate solutions to problems that will serve them incredibly well in many aspects of their life.

In our house, the phrase “Let’s talk about this later” (said in a warm, not threatening tone) has become an indicator that the respective parties should start thinking of solutions to a problem. We recently had a problem because my daughter (age 3 ¾) wanted to wear pajamas to school.


Finally I said “OK, you can wear pajamas to school today but let’s talk about it later.”


On our way home from school that night I said “Let’s not forget that we need to talk about wearing pajamas to school.”


She said “I been thinking about it ALL DAY,” and proceeded to give me some options (one of which was acceptable to me; no further negotiation required).
And as for the tooth brushing: we made it through our struggle.


What was the incredible solution that made tooth brushing acceptable to her?

Brushing in the living room. A solution I would never have imagined without her input.

Toothbrushing struggles solved, instantly.

Give a try, and let me know how it goes!



About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Leave a Comment