Toddlers have trouble with giant leaps, but they’re great at baby steps. If you get into fights over tooth brushing, for example, you’ll be much more successful if you break your goal into some smaller baby steps. For example, consider it a tiny success when your child lets you touch the toothbrush to his lips or teeth. Cheer, “Yea! All done. Gimme five! Let’s go read some fun books!” Promptly reward this mini-cooperation with a quick dollop of fun. (I know you can’t do a good cleaning in a second, but that’s okay. It’s a good baby step of progress.)

Over a few days, gradually increase the time you are touching to a fast count of three, and within days you’ll be able to brush the teeth for a few seconds. Your next baby step is to increase the brushing to several seconds. Always end with a cheer and a little reward of fun (“feeding the meter”). 

But what if your toddler won’t let you get a brush anywhere near his mouth? Don’t fight! This is not a battle you can win. Instead, take even smaller baby steps and connect with respect. Aim for his “sweet spot” so he knows you really get his message: “No …no mouth!” And throw in some playing the boob. “Okay, you win! You always win! No more brush. Let’s get pj’s on. Oh, wait! I forgot. I have to brush your knee really fast. Let’s count: One, two! All done! Uh oh...silly Mommy, I forgot. I have to brush your foot superfast too.” (Throw in some extra boob fun by searching around for his foot in his pockets, asking, “Hey, where’s your foot? Pleeease, help me find your foot!”) Then, when you’re finished, cheer, “Yea! All done! Let’s read a book.” 

Now—this is important—practice this a few times every day, adding new baby steps little by little. “Okay, now the other knee. Now we brush this arm. Oh yeah, and that arm. And fingers. Now your thumb. Where’s your thumb? Other thumb. Ear. Other ear.” Briefly touch the brush to each place. Then say, “Yea! All done! Gimme a hard five!” And play the boob by howling and hopping in pretend pain when he does it. Within a week or two, you’ll be doing some top-notch tooth brushing!

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.