In the post Hair Brushing Is a Safety Issue, blogger Dulce de Leche talks about how a child knowing that their body boundaries are respected is more important than brushed hair. I feel the same way about brushing teeth, though the consequences of unbrushed teeth are bit worse than unbrushed hair. So I've found various ways over the years to keep tooth brushing interesting, fun and to get it done.
1. The bacteria in their mouth screams "NO! NO! Don't brush me!" and you say "I'm going to get you! Leave my child's mouth you yucky germs! Out! Out!"
Making brushing teeth fun usually gets the job done. While the child is more focused on your silly voices and the idea that the germs in their mouth are talking while Super Hero Mom vanquishes them, you can do a quick job of actually destroying the buggers.
2. Let them do it as much as they are able.
As soon as they start grabbing for the tooth brush, I start letting them brush their own teeth when they want to. I direct sometimes or do a quick job after they are done, but at least they get the satisfaction of trying to do it themselves.
3. This one or that one, this kind or that kind. Choices!
Have multiple tooth brushes and different kinds of toothpaste, xylitol and other options around. You don't even have to use a toothbrush! Try a soft cloth, your finger or even just mouthwash. Make the choices more about how to get it done, then whether or not to get it done.
4. Rock the baby to sleep while brushing. Seriously!
My 6 year old and 4 year old have had the most fun lately pretending to be a baby while I brush their teeth and hair. I sing them a lullaby while they lay on my lap and close their eyes, and I gently, slowly brush away.
5. Make it about taking good care of our bodies.
It's not a power struggle. It's not about obedience or compliance. It's about giving them the skills to care for their own bodies and those skills take time to learn. Maybe that's one reason their baby teeth fall out and they don't start getting permanent teeth until 6 or so. By that age, they are a bit more capable of understanding the reasons to take care of them.
6. Provide information.
I've told my kids that other people don't want to smell their stinky breath. Don't do this in a shaming way, it's just information, but it can be useful information to know!
7. Be patient. The teeth don't need to get brushed RIGHT NOW.
It's really not going to make a difference if their teeth get brushed at 8 am or at noon right as you're leaving the house to go somewhere. It doesn't matter if they get brushed right after dinner or as they are climbing into bed.
8. Location, location, location.
Teeth don't have to be brushed in the bathroom! Use the kitchen sink or do it in the shower. Or take a cup of water and a bowl to spit in and do it in front of the tv, in bed, outside or wherever they happen to be.
9. Don't stress! They are probably going to get cavities anyway.
Or not. But I'm starting to think it has more to do with genetics, diet and dumb luck than brushing. Some of the people I know with the healthiest teeth have the worst personal hygiene habits and some of the people I know who've had cavities have brushed regularly their whole lives. Using all these tips and tools I just shared, my kids have all brushed their teeth consistently once a day and usually twice a day their whole lives. All three have had/ will have dental surgery. My 20 month old LOVES to have her teeth brushed. She went through a period where she would stand outside the bathroom door and scream "TEETH!" multiple times a day and she would cry when I stopped brushing her teeth. She has dental surgery coming up because her teeth are FAR worse than the other kids' were at this age.
So if it's a question of getting teeth brushed vs. maintaining the trust and boundaries in the relationship, refer to Dulce's hair brushing post above.