Dear Mr. Dad: My wife thinks we should be brushing our 2-year old’s teeth every night. But the nights I put our daughter to bed, she refuses to let me brush her teeth. Is it really necessary at this age? Isn’t she going to lose these teeth in a few years anyway?

A: The quick answer is Yes and Yes. Yes, your daughter will lose her primary teeth (also called “baby teeth”)—the first ones when she’s around six, the last ones by the time she’s 13. And yes, even though they’re in her mouth temporarily, it’s important to take care of them while they’re there. First of all, they’ll help her adult teeth come in straight. Second, she needs those teeth as she learns to speak. And third, they’ll help her chew her food properly. Baby teeth are just as susceptible to cavities as their adult mouthmates. And most dentists will tell you that tooth decay is an infection, one that can harm your child’s overall health. Oh, and if you think getting her to brush her teeth is hard now, imagine how hard it’ll be if she needs fillings.
Dr. Oana Romasan, a Florida-based pediatric dentist (, recommends that parents brush their children’s teeth as soon as they appear. Using a soft-bristle brush and only a pea-sized amount of toothpaste, brush each tooth in a gentle circular motion. Be sure to get the inside, outside, and chewing surface of every tooth, and finish up by brushing her tongue (to remove build-up of plaque- and bad-breath-causing bacteria).

Of course, this is easier said than done. Toddlers are notorious for not wanting to have anything stuck into their mouth. And once something does get in there, you might have a terrible time getting it out again.
To make brushing a cheerful part of your morning and nighttime routines, take your daughter on a special trip to the drug store to pick out a toothbrush with her favorite character on it. Actually, get two, just in case one drops in the toilet (yep, it’s happened to me on several occasions).

Here are a few more field-tested strategies that may help.

  • Brush her teeth in the bathtub. If you’re already washing her, she may be willing to accept your help with her teeth. Sounds simple, but it works for many parents.
  • Offer a reward. If she lets you brush her teeth, you’ll read an extra book before lights out. Or she gets a sticker. Hey, if it works for the dentist, it may work for you. And speaking of dentists, make an appointment for her to visit one now. You want to have her associate dentists with fun, not with pain and fear.
  • Set a good example. Toddlers love to do what mommy and daddy do. You may be able to work out a swap: she brushes your teeth and you do hers.
  • Distract her. Find a movie or show she likes and make it the brushing video. She can watch, but only if she opens her mouth.
  • Try an electric or battery-operated toothbrush. Some toddlers enjoy the sensation as well as the noise. Plus it may get the job done faster than a regular toothbrush.

Remember, you’ll need to do the actual brushing until she’s at least six. And the key is to make the process as fun as possible for everyone. So brush together, create a tooth-brushing dance, or anything else that you think has any chance of making your daughter’s teeth cleaning an exciting and enjoyable time for both of you.