Solving Tooth Brushing Sensitivities

  • Situation

    My child balks when it is time to brush his teeth.  I think he has sensitivity to brushing.  He cries and just turns away – what can I do?

  • Summary

    There are a number of strategies that can be used in combination if a child has a sensitivity to – or anxiety about – brushing teeth.  These strategies include oral motor activities to desensitize, choices throughout the routine to provide a sense of control, visual supports such as a mini-schedule, redirective activities such as a song and a reinforcement item or activity upon completion.

  • Definition

    Solving Tooth Brushing Sensitivities includes utilizing a combination of established strategies including oral motor desensitizing, structured choices, visual supports, redirection, and reinforcement.

  • Quick Facts

    • Child's Age: 3-5, 6-10
    • Planning Effort: Low
    • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Pre-requisites

    Ability to make choices

  • Process

    1. Provide oral motor activities your child enjoys before it is time to brush teeth.  Explore blowing bubbles, whistles and other similar toys.  Many of these items can be found in toy stores, on the internet, and in OT (occupational therapy) catalogs such as Abilitations.  Provide chewy items for your child while he/she is watching TV or while you are reading to him/her.  “Chew toys” are available in stores, on the internet or in OT catalogs.

    2. Have choices available for your child such as a variety of toothpastes, and toothbrushes to choose from.  (For some children, a choice between two items may be less overwhelming.)  Allow your child to make a choice before brushing.

    3. Use a mini-schedule (see link) to help your child see the beginning and end of the routine.  At the end of the schedule include an activity or item the child enjoys as a reinforcer for brushing.

    4. Take turns with your child, allowing him to start with just water, then take turns with the toothpaste.

    5. Explore using a rhyme or song during brushing.  Such songs can be found on the internet.  One example is: Top to the left, top to the right, top to front so it shines like a light.  Bottom left, bottom right, bottom front what a beautiful sight.  If you have a CD of favorite songs, consider playing this during tooth brushing.  You may even have a video playing during tooth brushing.  It is a good idea to have these items available only at “tooth brushing” time.

    6. When finished have a reinforcing activity or item available.  Pair this with enthusiastic verbal praise.

  • Documents and Related Resources ( sample retail site to purchase oral motor items)


    school specialty store (sample retain site to purchase oral motor items)


    setbc.orgPicture Set (website resource for pictures/icons)

  (link to website and picture cards for toothbrushing/visual schedule)


    If you have questions or concerns about the Watson Institute’s use of this information, please contact us.