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Teaching the Art of Toothbrushing

Though you've likely been cleaning your child's teeth with a toothbrush for his first year, by 18 months he'll be ready to start moving the toothbrush on his own. It'll take about five more years before he can truly brush, but here's how you can get him started  -- and keep both of you smiling:


  • A sink with a mirror above it and a sturdy, low step stool with a nonskid surface, so he can see himself as he brushes.

  • A child-size, soft-bristled toothbrush. Let him choose his own  -- in his favorite color or with a TV character he likes  -- and he'll be more likely to want to use it.

  • Disposable paper cups for rinsing. (Start teaching your child how to rinse, and not to swallow.)

  • A towel within easy reach, for when he, and probably you, get doused with water.


  1. Strip your child down to his diaper or make sure he's wearing clothes or pajamas you don't mind getting wet.

  2. Wet the toothbrush to soften it. If your child is getting enough fluoride from water or supplements, your doctor will probably recommend holding off on toothpaste until he learns to rinse and spit, usually at around age 2; then use just a pea-size amount on the brush.

  3. Let him brush his teeth himself first. (Toddlers love to imitate their parents, so brush alongside him.) After a few seconds, praise him, and then say "My turn!" Use a back-and-forth stroke for the biting surfaces, and a gentle, circular motion to clean his teeth and gums, as well as his tongue, where bacteria can also build.

  4. Give his teeth silly names: Saying "Oops, we missed Esmerelda!" will make him more likely to open wide so you can clean the missed spots.

  5. Spit, rinse, spit  -- not an easy skill for young kids to master. Tell him to say "patooey" and teach him to aim into the sink and to look down at the drain, not at himself in the mirror  -- this isn't intuitive, as you'll find if you forget this step.

  6. Dry yourselves off, and let him admire his sparkling smile in the mirror.