How to Brush the Teeth of a Child with Sensory Problems

Getting any kid to brush their teeth can be a challenging, frustrating experience. But, if your child has a sensory disorder, it isn’t just challenging—it can seem impossible.

For children with sensory problems, a toothbrush may make them feel sick to their stomach, nervous, or even as if they are in danger.

However, with a little persistence (and a few tricks), it is possible to get your child to brush her teeth. Here are some ideas you can try:

  1. Sometimes, the bristles are the problem. If you think that might be the case, you can try to use another object to get toothpaste on your child’s teeth. You can try a washcloth, your finger, special rubber toothbrushes, or a rubber finger cot. Or, you can try a toothbrush with natural bristles, which are extremely soft.
  2. Start slowly. Buy two baby-sized toothbrushes with very soft bristles. Use one to brush along your child’s face so she gets used to the sensation. Use the other one in your child’s mouth, but start using it without toothpaste, just warm water (the temperature of the water may make a big difference).
  3. An electric toothbrush can actually have a calming effect on your child.
  4. It is possible that the toothpaste is the problem. It may be the flavor. Maybe your child doesn’t like the feel of toothpaste foam in her mouth—if so, try non-foaming toothpaste.
  5. Make brushing a predictable routine, and do it at the same time every day.
  6. Give your child some control over brushing—let her choose the order in which she will brush her teeth, and let her do it herself. Will she start with the top or the bottom? Will she go from left to right? A consistent pattern for brushing (that she is in control of) will not only help her learn how to do it right, but it will help her learn when to expect the different sensations in her mouth.
    1. Talk to your pediatrician about taking your child to an occupational therapist or to a speech language pathologist for more help. They will try therapies to get the child used to sensations around and then in the mouth. This therapy can include touching the cheeks and chin, then moving on to the lips and mouth. It can also involve fun activities that involve the child’s mouth, such as blowing bubbles, drinking through straws, and even chewing gum.
    2. Get your child used to oral sensations on your own, by tickling her face and lips with feathers and trying out lip-gloss. Let her try out different flavors of toothpaste on the end of a toothbrush. Even letting her play with a toothbrush with nothing on it will let her get used to having something in her mouth.
    3. Start by making it a game. Put a favorite food on the toothbrush, such as peanut butter, and have her “brush.” Again, it is important that she is the one in control and gets to use the brush herself to try this out.
    4. Buy a doll and a toothbrush and let your child feed the doll and brush its teeth.
    5. Make sure she brushes in front of a mirror so she can see what’s going on.
    6. Try breaking up tooth brushing into several smaller tasks, and reward your child for mastering them the whole way through.
    7. Make sure your dentist and her staff knows about your child’s sensory issues. They can help to calm your child down during dental visits, and may even have some brushing tips of their own.

If your child has sensory problems, then teaching them how to brush their teeth is just like everything else—it takes patience and persistence. However, in the end your persistence will pay off—just don’t give up!

About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
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