Sensory Tooth Brushing Tips for Brushing Teeth

Is toothbrushing a nightmare in your house? Sensory related toothbrushing issues can be! Need some sensory tooth brushing tips? For individuals with sensory difficulties, toothbrushing challenges mean more than cavities, plaque build up, and gum sensitivities. Sensory toothbrushing issues can lead to meltdowns, anxiety, and daily struggles with nightly and morning routines. Does your child cry when it’s time to brush their teeth? Do you know, or suspect, that they have some sensory challenge with brushing their teeth? 

sensory tooth brushing issues and tooth brushing tips by a pediatric occupational therapist

sensory tooth brushing tips for kids

Brushing teeth can be a challenge for many kids whether it’s from sensory processing challenges, challenges with routine, anxiety, or any other variety of reasons.

This is an area that an occupational therapist (OT) can help you with, by helping you set up a home program to make brushing your child’s teeth easier. Check out the tips below to help make tooth brushing easier for your family! 

These toothbrushing tips are interventions for making brushing teeth easier, or strategies for helping with sensory challenges that impact  tooth brushing.

Teaching dental hygiene to preschoolers or older learners addresses a daily occupation.  Incorporate these tips and recommendations daily to impact independence with tooth brushing.

Amazon affiliate links are included below.

Tip # 1: Use a Visual Schedule 

Adding a visual picture schedule can help reduce stress and anxiety during teeth brushing by providing clear expectations of what’s going to come next. It also helps to reduce the auditory input for following directions, helping your learner focus on the task at hand.

Another perk of using a tooth brushing visual schedule is that it ensures that the same routine is used every time that tooth brushing occurs. This can also help to reduce stress and anxiety by ensuring that the child knows what’s coming next. Which brings us to tip # 2! 

Tip # 2: Create and Use a Consistent Routine 

Create a routine that works for you and your family! It can evolve over time, so don’t worry if it’s not exactly what you want it to be right away. Having a routine helps take away anxiety around the unknown, and establishes what to expect during the situation. 

Once you determine what works, plan to utilize the same language, visuals, toothbrush and toothpaste every time you work on toothbrushing.

It will also be helpful to complete this toothbrushing routine around the same time every day. It doesn’t have to be rigid in that you brush teeth every night at 5pm, but should always follow an event like a meal, or when you first wake up in the morning.

Consistency and practice is key! 

Bonus Tip! Make sure that when you’re done with the toothbrushing routine, follow it up with a fun activity like play or a preferred game.

Tip # 3: Use a Timer 

Similar to creating a routine, using a timer helps to take fear of the unknown out of the picture. It also helps your child see that there is an end in sight to the activity. (Amazon affiliate link) Timers, or counting, are great to pair with a visual schedule. This nighttime toothbrush schedule offers more tips.

Tip # 4: Sing a Song 

If a timer causes too much stress or becomes an object of fixation, you can play a song or count to 10 for each side of mouth, top and bottom.

Brush to the tune of 1, 2, buckle my shoe or any other preferred tune or song that is easily broken into small chunks for brushing each quadrant of the mouth.

Tip # 5: Use a Vibrating Toothbrush 

For sensory seeking children, a vibrating toothbrush is a great way to engage them in toothbrushing! Not only do they get stimulation that they are seeking, they also get a thorough teeth cleaning with the vibration. 

Using a vibrating toothbrush does not need to be solely at toothbrushing time. It can be used anytime during the day.

There are cost-friendly options at most grocery stores and large box stores for families that are concerned with the cost of getting an electric toothbrush, or feel that their child won’t use it. 

Tip # 6: Flavored Toothpaste 

Flavored toothpaste brings an element of fun to a task that can feel like a chore. To add an extra layer of fun, and to encourage buy in from your child, go shopping together for new toothpaste. Get a few different flavors to try, and to have on hand in a pinch if the “preferred” flavor becomes boring or there is resistance to using it. 

Bonus Tip! Offering choices during an challenging activity such as brushing teeth, gives your child some sense of control of the situation. 

Tip # 7: Mouthwash that Shows the Plaque 

Like flavored toothpaste, mouthwash is another tactic to help get buy-in from your child. Listerine Smart Rinse or Plaque Disclosing Tablets are a couple of the many great products that help your child see where the plaque is.

Once they see where the plaque is, make a game out of cleaning all the “junk” out of their mouth. For kids that are older, you can use the visual the mouthwash gives to start talking about cavities, and the effects of not cleaning your teeth. 

Tip #8: Brush Only One Time Per Day 

The American Dental Association recommends tooth brushing twice a day. However, for kids that this task is extremely distressing, sometimes one REALLY good brushing a day is a success, and is a great start, and can be built upon.

The second time a day can, and should, still be attempted, but can have less focus on quality, as you build the child’s tolerance to the task.

The second time a day may have more focus on going through the motions, such as talking about the steps, doing a dry run, or if your child is emotionally regulated enough, attempting to brush their teeth. 

Tip # 9: Take Turns Brushing 

Helping your child with tooth brushing can take away stress over the motor component of coordinating hand to mouth, and challenges with completing multiple steps needed for toothbrushing. 

Taking turns during the tooth brushing process, your child brushing one time a day and you brushing their teeth the second time, can give back some control and insure at least one time a day is done thoroughly. This is a great way to incorporate turn taking lessons into functional performance of the essential life skill of brushing teeth!

Find what works for you and your child! 

Tip #10: Use a Water Pick 

If a toothbrush is still causing too much frustration, stress and anxiety, a good option is to change the tool completely, and try to reset the routine and behaviors. This is where a water pick is really great!

While the water jet can be overstimulating and noxious to some, others may find it less so than tooth brushing.

Implementing Tooth Brushing Tips 

These tips can help to break any negative behaviors or emotions that may surround your child’s tooth brushing routine, and give you a foundation to start a fresh routine. Start by trying one recommendation that you think will work for your child, give it a week and if it’s still not working try another. Working through toothbrushing challenges takes time and is a trial-and-error process. Hopefully you find these tips helpful!

Related hygiene tasks:

Incorporate these hygiene and grooming tasks and recommendations:

For specific ways to integrate sensory needs into a daily lifestyle, check out the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook. This resource uses not only a sensory diet strategy into daily activities, but it offers tools and resources to create a sensory lifestyle that uses motivating and meaningful daily tasks to offer much-needed sensory input so individuals can function throughout their day.

Contributor: Kaylee is a pediatric occupational therapist with a bachelors in Health Science from Syracuse University at Utica College, and a Masters in Occupational Therapy from Utica College. Kaylee has been working with children with special needs for 8 years, and practicing occupational therapy for 4 years, primarily in a private clinic, but has home health experience as well. Kaylee has a passion for working with the areas of feeding, visual development, and motor integration.

Tooth brushing tips