Strategies to Help Your Child Brush Their Teeth!

Self-care skills are incredibly important for young children to learn, but for children with sensory difficulties, some self-care skills can be difficult to master. If a child has sensory issues, their brain may have trouble processing or organizing information from the senses (sights, sounds, smells, textures, or flavors). As a result of sensory issues, activities such as brushing teeth can be extremely uncomfortable. If you are a parent and you believe your child is experiencing sensory issues, occupational therapy may be a helpful next step.

What is pediatric occupational therapy?

Pediatric occupational therapy focuses on building the skills that children need to complete their daily activities, or “occupations” like getting dressed, eating a meal, and brushing their teeth. To help children with sensory issues become more comfortable and able to brush their teeth more independently, an occupational therapist might use a few different strategies. Here are four examples:

1. Visual schedules: For children with sensory issues, visual schedules can be a helpful way to set expectations for the activity. A step-by-step visual schedule, with photos or images of each step can help to reduce anxiety or discomfort around the activity by eliminating any unknown variables and clearly identifying expected behaviors. A visual schedule for teeth brushing could include photos or images of the following:

  • Get items out of the cupboard
  • Put toothpaste on the brush
  • Get toothbrush wet under the faucet
  • Set timer for 2 minutes
  • Brush teeth
  • When the timer goes off, stop brushing
  • Put items away items back in the cupboard

Visual schedules are easy to make and a great way to support children with challenging tasks.

2. Playing a song/Using a timer: Children are advised to brush their teeth for at least two minutes to get all surfaces clean. Two minutes can feel like forever when you’re a child! As children begin to learn how to brush, you can start by brushing for less time; like thirty seconds and then one minute and increase the amount of time as they become more tolerant. Using a song or a visual timer is a great way to set the expectation that they need to brush until the song is over, or the timer ends. This is a big step in helping them become comfortable and familiar with the routine of brushing while making it fun! Some visual timer apps that are available on both iPhones and Androids that can be helpful are:

  • Children’s Countdown Timer
  • Fun Timer for Parents

3. Play with toothpaste: Children with sensory issues often experience aversions to certain foods, and playing with those foods (making them less “scary”) can often be a helpful strategy in occupational therapy. The same is true for toothpaste. If a child is experiencing an aversion to the texture, smell, or flavor of toothpaste, it might be helpful for them to work through it by playing with it. By presenting toothpaste as fun, it may help to decrease the aversion. Here are some activities you can do at home to incorporate play with toothpaste:

  • Practice letter formation with toothpaste
  • Use preferred toys to stomp or roll in the toothpaste

4. Practice with a preferred toy: To show the child that brushing their teeth does not have to be a painful or uncomfortable activity, it can be helpful to demonstrate and practice on a preferred toy (baby doll, stuffed animal, etc – anything with teeth!). This helps the child normalize the activity and practice in another context.

5. Adaptive Brushes: If your child has difficulty with using a standard toothbrush, they may benefit from using some kind of adaptive toothbrush to reduce or increase the sensory experience. A soft bristle brush can reduce the tactile experiences that happen with brushing and allow children to feel more comfortable with the task. Purchase a soft-bristled toothbrush here. An electric toothbrush provides vibration which can increase sensory input during brushing and help children be more aware of the brush in their mouth. Purchase an electric toothbrush here.

Brushing teeth is an important self-care skill for children, helping them learn to enjoy it and have fun while doing it is important! If you would like more information, please Contact Chicago Occupational Therapy or call (773) 980-0300 to learn more about our services and how we can help your child flourish and grow.