Who can resist the toothy grin of a toddler? That smile could melt the hardest of hearts. Unless you’re the parent responsible for keeping those pearly whites, well, pearly, then that mouth can produce a fair amount of resistance to toothbrushing.

Parents know that the American Dental Association (ADA) is right when it advises them to “make brushing a fun time for your child.” The implementation of that advice is not always simple when a three-year-old decides this is the area she’s going to dig in and exercise her iron will.

“You have to be cheerfully persistent,” says Dr. Leslie Dickinson, a family dentist in Little Rock. (I really thought she might have lost her mind when she said that. After all, she has three young sons.) Cheerfully persistent? I jokingly ask if the classic headlock is a bad plan.

Dr. Dickinson explains what most child-rearing professionals espouse: Parents must maintain control of themselves, their own emotions and their children. So if calmly holding your child in place to get through some rough days is what has to happen, then that’s what has to happen. “Some days my three-year-old and I battle wills. But I’m going to win because this is just too important to lose. I’m his mom, and want to make sure he’s healthy.”

Parents should begin cleaning their children’s mouths with a soft cloth in infancy, according to the ADA. Then by two, begin brushing with a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. Be sure they spit out the toothpaste. (Ask your child’s dentist or physician if you are considering using fluoride toothpaste before age 2.) Until you’re comfortable that your child can brush on his or her own, continue to brush your child’s teeth twice a day with a child-size toothbrush and a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. When your child has two teeth that touch, you should begin flossing their teeth daily.

By the age of three most children have a complete set of teeth. According to the ADA, they should also have already been to the dentist at least once, if for no other reason than basic screenings. You should discuss with your dentist if your child is getting the proper amount of fluoride and what the appropriate treatments are for your family.

Proper nutrition is also important for children’s teeth. It seems obvious to avoid sugary foods that will cause tooth decay. It’s also important to follow the USDA guidelines for childhood nutrition outlined by MyPlate. They include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean proteins. This nutrition promotes general growth and development that includes dental health as well.

Unfortunately, once the trying times of toddlerhood have passed, the fight over toothbrushing is not always over. Dickinson reports her older two children have moved on to sneakier ways around toothbrushing—they lie. Neither has figured out it’s literally impossible to pass the smell-test with this fib.

“I don’t know why kids try to get out of brushing their teeth, but they do. It’s really common,” says Dickinson. “You just have to keep sending them back to make them do it. They have to know the rules are never going to change. You have to be cheerfully persistent.”

Dental Check-up Checklist

To make the visit positive:

  • Consider making a morning appointment when children tend to be rested and cooperative.
  • Keep any anxiety or concerns you have to yourself. Children can pick up on your emotions, so emphasize the positive.
  • Never use a dental visit as a punishment or threat.
  • Never bribe your child.
  • Talk with your child about visiting the dentist.

During this visit, you can expect the dentist to: 

  • Inspect for oral injuries, cavities or other problems.
  • Let you know if your child is at risk of developing tooth decay.
  • Clean your child’s teeth and provide tips for daily care.
  • Discuss teething, pacifier use or finger/thumbsucking habits.
  • Discuss treatment, if needed, and schedule the next check-up.

Kerri Jackson Case has a pearly white smile thanks to a lifetime of good dentistry. She is freelance writer who lives in Little Rock with her husband, son and two dogs.