Do You Need to Brush a Toddler’s Teeth If They’re Asleep?

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The moment your toddler falls asleep is a magical time for some parents.

It can also be a very precarious time!

After all, toddlers have all kinds of problems falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up too early.

So when they do finally zonk out, the last thing you want to do is ruin it.

But what if they fall asleep before you’ve finished the bedtime routine, like while watching a movie?

Do you need to brush your toddler’s teeth while they’re sleeping? Or wake them up to brush?

Dentists say that you shouldn’t make a habit of skipping teeth at night, but the most important thing really is to brush twice per 24 hour period.

Skipping a cleaning once in a while isn’t a big deal. But if your toddler falling asleep too early becomes a pattern, scroll down for some ideas on how to tackle this.

Most parents agree that it’s really not worth waking your kid up to brush their teeth before bed, unless you need to wake them up to pee, too.

Let’s take a little bit of a closer look at the issue.

Why do we brush our teeth at night, anyway?

It’s pretty simple.

Most of us have been brushing our teeth about twice a day, and definitely at night before bed, most of our lives.

But why do we do it?

Essentially, acid and plaque and other bacteria build up in our mouths and on our teeth all day long.

There’s some naturally occurring plaque and bacteria in our mouths, but even more (along with corrosive acid) when we eat and drink.

The longer that gunk sits on your teeth, the more it can corrode your enamel (your teeth’s protective layer) and cause cavities or other dental problem.

Dentists interviewed by Greatist recommend brushing twice in a 24-hour period to keep build up of plaque and acid at a minimum.

Doing it before going to sleep and first thing in the morning are the best ways to build the habit and ensure we don’t forget!

Why do kids need to brush their teeth? Aren’t their baby teeth just going to fall out anyway?

Good point!

WebMD recommends you start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as about 4 teeth in a row appear.

Start the process early so that it becomes a regular and important part of your child’s life as they get older.

Baby teeth can get cavities and have other decay just like adult teeth. And even though they’ll fall out eventually, those cavities can still cause problems.

According to Polka Dot Dental in Georgia, very small cavities in baby teeth can sometimes be treated without being filled, but often most kids’ cavities will need to be filled because:

  • The infection can spread to and harm permanent teeth before they emerge
  • Untreated cavities can cause a need for a baby or toddler root canal
  • Infected decay spots can cause pain and swelling

That’s not something anyone wants to go through, let alone a baby or a toddler!

A drop of prevention is almost always worth an ocean of cure.

So get on a good teeth-brushing schedule now!

What to do if your toddler falls asleep without brushing teeth

This scenario can happen really easily if your toddler passes out while:

  • Watching a movie
  • Riding in the car
  • Sipping milk or formula
  • Being watched by a new babysitter
  • Sleeping over at a grandparent’s house

Or any other time the routine gets disrupted.

The idea of baby cavities and toddler root canals sounds really scary, but it’s not going to be the end of the world to skip brushing on rare occasions that your toddler falls asleep and you don’t want to wake them up!

(The same article from Greatist featuring interviews with dentists recommends doubling up on brushing time the next morning to be extra sure you remove all of the plaque build up.)

But if this keeps happening over and over again, you may need to come up with a new strategy.

Here are a few things to consider:

Dry brushing is OK sometimes, and better than no brushing:

Mark Burhenne, DDS recommends a gentle brushing with a dry toothbrush when you’re in a pinch.

If you think you can do this gently while your kid is asleep, just to get a little bit of the plaque off before bed, it’s a lot better than doing nothing!

Try brushing about 30-60 minutes after dinner

Yanfang Ren, DDS says that when you eat a meal, like dinner, the bacteria in your mouth release more acid, softens your enamel, and makes your mouth extra vulnerable.

But about 30 minutes later or so is a perfect time to brush your teeth for the night if you fear you might forget later.

It might actually even be better than brushing right before bed because it gives the toothpaste more time to work and fortify your teeth while you sleep.

Adjust bedtime or naps

If your toddler is chronically falling asleep too early, it’s a good sign that they’re really tired.

(Shocking, I know!)

Getting the right bedtime and nap schedule for a toddler is more of an art than a science, but you can try:

  • Getting them a longer, later, or more consistent nap to stay up later
  • Or moving bedtime earlier for more sleep overall

Trust me, if your toddler isn’t sleeping well, their teeth will be the least of your problems!

An irritable, cranky, and flat out mean toddler rampaging around the house might actually be worse than a few cavities.

What to do if your toddler hates brushing teeth

If this has become a nightly battle, no wonder you don’t want to wake your kid up!

Who wants to fight, struggle, and yell just for the ‘privilege’ of brushing someone else’s teeth?

To make things a little easier, you basically have two options here:

Option 1 – Make brushing teeth fun

Like a lot of things kids don’t want to do, if you can turn it into a game or adventure, they’ll probably enjoy it a whole lot more.

It can really help to get a fun toothbrush, for starters.

Kids seem to like electric ones, and nowadays you can get a brush with almost any character or color design you can think of.

My daughter loves her electric Belle Oral-B toothbrush (Amazon link), for example!

You can also give them a little bit of control by letting them:

  • Put the toothpaste on
  • Turn on the toothbrush
  • Fill up a water cup for rinse-and-spit

And finally, a little silly role-play or making up goofy songs while you brush never hurts!

(You can also offer a strategically-chosen reward for good behavior.)

Option 2: Get tough

I’ve seen a few different parenting experts recommend this approach.

Essentially, you lay down a firm expectation but also give your child the freedom to make their own choice on the matter.

(At least, it seems that way to them.)

Say something like, “I can’t force you to brush your teeth, but neither of us can leave the bathroom until you do.”

You draw that line in the sand and hold firm against whatever happens next, staying calm, gentle, and in control.

Eventually, the experts say, most children will cave and realize that the only way to get out of the situation is by making the choice to cooperate.

They might be grumpy about it, but ultimately it feels better for them to make the decision than to have you physically force the toothbrush into their mouths.

Wrapping Up

In the end, if your toddler falls asleep before bedtime every now and then, it’s OK to just gently transfer them to bed without brushing their teeth.

If you do it, be sure to brush for double the amount of time in the morning! The plaque buildup will be greater than usual, so you have to be thorough.

The general rule is to brush your teeth twice per 24 hour period. It doesn’t always have to be right before bed.

In fact, brushing about 30 minutes or so after dinner might be better for our teeth, anyway!

But still, if you find your toddler is constantly falling asleep before his or her actual bedtime, you might want to adjust some things and get your routine back under control.

(Before you go, interested in the difference between kid toothpaste vs adult? Read here!)

Hope this helps, parents!