Taking care of your toddler’s teeth…without wanting to pull your hair out.

[**This was written years ago (more than I’d like to admit) and never posted publicly.  I came across it in my files around Mother’s Day, and it warmed my heart thinking about my girls at that sweet age.  Embrace the frazzled days of keeping up with toddlers, mamas.  They go by so fast!**]

The alarm goes off at 6:30am, and my children and I awaken with smiles on our faces, and roses on our breath.  We all sit down to a homemade breakfast, everyone quickly dresses in perfectly-matched outfits that were picked out the night before, and then my darling 6- and 2-year old brush their teeth for precisely two minutes.  They then let Mommy have a turn brushing, and we floss, put their hair in ribbons and bows, and happily sing songs on our way out the door to school.  Since we are five minutes early, there is no traffic, no stoplights, and no one drives 10mph under the speed limit in front of me.

…And then I actually wake up.  My crazy dream has caused me to oversleep, so I throw on my clothes, and throw my makeup in a bag to apply while waiting in line at school.  After yelling at my 6 year old to get out of bed, she finally stumbles into her closet, and informs me she has nothing to wear.  I go check, and she actually doesn’t have anything to wear.  I do a quick smell test on some clothes at the top of her hamper, and make her put them on.  I brush a few of the knots out of her hair while she whines, and then realize my 2 year old is drawing on the wall.  I grab the 2 year old, a couple of portable yogurts, some clean clothes of hers, and plop her into her car seat.   Big sister climbs in, and we speed down the road, 5 minutes late, catching every red light, and that lovely old soul who won’t let me pass.  I drop the oldest off at school, and when I get to daycare to drop off the youngest, I realize the clothes I brought for her don’t match.  My plan is definitely to tell her teacher that she insisted on dressing herself.     

For those of you whose life looks like the second scenario, I can relate.  If you relate more to the first paragraph…please don’t tell me about it.  Ever.  

As a dentist, I know what my kids ideally need to do in order to take care of their teeth, and avoid the pain and suffering of cavities and tooth infections.  But as a working mom, I’ve really had to make our habits very practical.  Here are some tips, from one frazzled mom to another:

 -Brushing a toddler’s teeth is hard.  Even for me.  If she’s combative or fussy, I lay her on a bed, usually the same direction as if I were changing her diaper.  I brace her head with my left arm, lift her upper lips with my left hand, and brush with my right hand.  Quickly!  If she does happen to yell, I use that opportunity to get to those back molars.

-I do NOT do that twice a day!  I only do it every once in a while, if I know she hasn’t let me get in there recently.  What’s just as important as getting the gunk off her teeth, is fostering a desire to brush herself.  

-To foster that desire and curiosity, I let her watch the rest of us brush.  Usually she’ll want to join along.  She usually just chews on the toothbrush, but at least she’s joining in the fun.  

-I will confess, my 2 year old doesn’t always brush twice a day.  But when we don’t, I carry around this handy little spray that has xylitol and baking soda.  Those two ingredients are helpful for a lot of reasons (that’s for another post), and she LOVES it.

-Because we practically live in the car, I keep it well-stocked.  Xylitol spray, toothbrushes, and no-fluoride toothpaste (so that it’s safe to swallow) stay in the cup holders in the back seat.  My oldest knows to brush as soon as she has her breakfast, and I can give the little one a good once-over while she’s still buckled in.

-Take care of your kids’ momma!  This is not just for psychological reasons, but for scientific reasons as well.  The bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease are all transmissible.  That’s right; your cavities are contagious!  Multiple studies now show that treating the cavity infection in your mouth will help prevent cavities in their mouth.  And if your little darlings aren’t going to brush perfectly, you certainly don’t want to pass along any little cavity-causing bugs when you kiss them or blow on their food.

-Sugar is truly everywhere in your kids’ life.  There are SO many obvious sources of sugar (soda, cakes, cookies, candy) that parents often forget about the sneaky sources like milk, fruit juice, and fruit snacks.  Even less obvious are things like chips, pretzels, and bread.  

-If your kids are hooked on candy, switch it out for candy sweetened with xylitol.  It’s available at health food stores, online, and in my office.

-A very wise pediatrician once told me “You can’t control what your child eats.  You can only control what is offered and when.”  (Thanks, Dr. Towns!) So please, offer more vegetables, fruits, and clean meats, and buy less of the processed, chemical-laden crap.  They might whine, but that’s okay.  It’s a lot easier to say no to bad food at the grocery store, than it is after it’s in your pantry.

-If they absolutely have to have a sippy cup, make sure it’s filled with water.  If they’re accustomed to juice or milk, slowly dilute it more and more each day until they’re fine with just water.

-As with anything in life, lead by example.  Let them see you brush; let them see you get your teeth cleaned at the dentist; let them see you eat better. 

With all of this being said, do your best, and then let go of the guilt.   If your family drinks soda all day, never brushes, and hates the dentist, just pick one thing to work on over the next month.  Maybe you just cut back to one soda a day.  Just take wherever you are, vow to make one step in the right direction, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.  And feel free to give me a wink if you see me dropping my kids off in the morning, and overhear me say that my daughter “dressed herself”.  

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