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Nothing But the Tooth [UPDATE]

Getting Stubborn Kids to Brush Their Teeth

With the girls approaching their third birthday, we thought we were done with teething, but apparently we were wrong. Two of Squeaker’s back molars have just began erupting, causing her great pain. Nomi and I have been easing her through the teething process with children’s ibuprofen, chocolate pudding, and two small plastic icepack teething toys shaped like a cat and a dog that we got during their original round of teething.

Squeaker’s recent teething pain got me thinking about the troubles we’ve had getting the kids to care for their teeth properly. Dental hygiene is something of an interest of mine; I had perfect teeth for all of my childhood, and I even wanted to become a dentist when I was in elementary school. So from the moment Muffin and Squeaker’s first teeth started coming in, I wanted to make sure that we took care of them correctly. Nomi picked up some children’s toothbrushes with pictures of Dora the Explorer on them and training toothpaste with a picture of Elmo from Sesame Street on it, and my younger brother and his family sent the kids two Dora the Explorer “Great Smile Sets.” We thought we’d be all set as we introduced the kids to the necessity of brushing their teeth.

Little did we know how much they would resist. The kids are stubborn; as a friend of my younger brother once pointed out, “Burstein” and “stubborn” share six letters. We tried to brush their teeth ourselves at first, but they pulled away. We showed them how we brushed our own teeth, but they still weren’t interested. So for the first few months, we pleaded, begged, and cajoled and occasionally snuck a toothbrush into their mouths for a few quick brushes when they weren’t expecting it. Finally, they began brushing their teeth on their own, but rather haphazardly. A few strokes of the brush in the mouth, and Muffin would cry out, “I’m done!”

Clearly, we needed a better solution to this problem.

I thought I found it when our friend Daniel took us to the New England Aquarium. The girls were delighted to see the staff brushing the teeth of the seals in the tank outside. I thought I had a brilliant idea that night when I asked Squeaker if she wanted to “play seal” and have me brush her teeth. She agreed enthusiastically – for one night. The next night, she was back to wanting to brush her teeth herself and not doing a good job of it.

I thought it was just us, but then back in March I read an article in the New York Times on the rise of cavities in toddlers. Apparently, dentists all over the country are seeing a widespread problem with preschoolers’ teeth, to the point that some toddlers are having surgery under general anesthesia to fix their baby teeth. There seem to be a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect that for most of today’s parents the main reason is the same as ours: exhaustion. By the end of the day, we’re all so tired, and toddlers are so willful, that getting them to brush their teeth can be a real struggle. Also, as the article pointed out, no one really told us when we should be taking the kids to see a dentist for the first time. And there’s the question of whether toddler toothpaste is okay to use, as it doesn’t have fluoride in it. Fortunately for us, Brookline’s water is fluoridated, so that seems to be a non-issue for us.

Knowing we were not alone, however, still did not get the girls' teeth brushed.

Cut to a few months ago. Nomi and I were supervising Muffin and Squeaker as they explored Sesame Street videos on YouTube, and by pure chance they came across the Sesame Street: Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me: Brushy Brush Public Service Announcement. In the video, Elmo sings a fun song about brushing your teeth while various celebrities and kids brush their teeth and look right at you, as if they’re looking into a mirror. Muffin and Squeaker love this video. Immediately, they demanded their toothbrushes, and they began to brush their teeth vigorously. The video has now become part of our nightly routine. Just before bed, I set it up, and the kids watch it and brush their teeth.

The video is part of the Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me initiative, and I presume they produced it partly in response to the rise of pediatric cavities. For Nomi and me, it’s close to a miracle. With this one video, our kids went from being recalcitrant tooth-brushers to eager and enthusiastic ones. My hope is that when we do take them to their first dental visit in July, their teeth will be in great shape.

This week’s column is written by Michael A. Burstein.

Update: Sesame Workshop sent the following press release about the PSA and initiative mentioned above: 

Elmo and Abby Cadabby Teach Kids that Oral Health Counts!

Dental caries (tooth decay) is one of the most common health problems impacting young children’s primary teeth. In fact, nearly 40-to 50-percent of children will be affected by tooth decay by age five and according to the latest Surgeon General’s report, Oral Health in America, more than 51 million school hours are lost each year to dental-related conditions.

In response to these facts, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, in partnership with Sam’s Club Giving Program and MetLife Foundation, has developed Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me, a bilingual (English/Spanish), multimedia outreach initiative motivating children 2 to 5 years of age, their parents, and caregivers to care for children’s dental health. The 350,000 free outreach kits are being distributed nationwide and are also available at www.sesamestreet.org/teeth. Healthy Teeth, Health Me features brand new songs, animated segments and celebrity guests Bruno Mars, David Hyde Pierce, Nicole Kidman, Amy Ryan, Wendy Williams, Jay Sean, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber.

The announcement was made [March 1] at The Children’s Aid Society Dunlevy-Milbank Center in New York City with help from Sesame Street’s oral health advisory member James J. Crall, DDS, ScD, Professor & Chair, UCLA Public Health & Community Dentistry and Child Advocate for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Lance de la Rosa, SVP Operations, North Division, Sam’s Club, Sherrie Westin, EVP & Chief Marketing Officer, Sesame Workshop, Dennis White, President and CEO, MetLife Foundation, and Sesame Street’s Abby Cadabby and Gordon.

In addition, the Children's Health Fund mobile dental clinic offered educational tours. This full-service "dentist's office on wheels," also funded by MetLife Foundation, provides timely and preventive oral health care to low-income and homeless children in New York City.

“Programs such as Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me are absolutely critical to increasing awareness of the importanceof developing good oral health habits in early childhood that provide life-long benefits, and the connectionbetween good oral health and children’s ability to learn in school, be free from pain and infection, and feel goodabout themselves,” said James J. Crall, DDS, ScD, Professor & Chair, UCLA Public Health & Community Dentistry and Child Advocate for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

“Educating children and those who care for them about the importance of oral health in pre-school age children is essential to breaking therecurring cycle of dental disease and reducing the profound disparities in oral health that continue to negativelyimpact the lives of millions of children and their families throughout this nation. The commitment of Sesame Workshop and its partners to this effort is commendable and potentially transformative.”

The project objectives include:

  • Empowering children to make healthy choices that will have a positive impact on their oral health
  • Educating adults about the benefits of young children’s preventive oral care and recommended strategiesto establish a foundation for healthy habits early in life.

“This partnership aligns well with our initiative to provide important health solutions for our members, and thisoutstanding outreach opportunity will directly benefit young children and help caregivers make oral health apriority,” said Jill Turner-Mitchael, Senior Vice President, Sam’s Club Health and Wellness. “Sesame Street provides an outstanding audience and method to lead this multimedia initiative, and we are excited to be standing there next to them.”

“Developing good oral health habits is a vital part of a comprehensive approach to better overall health care,”said Dennis White, president and CEO of MetLife Foundation. “MetLife Foundation is pleased to work with Sesame Workshop to help educate children and families on the importance of oral health care. The earlier children and families begin to learn about dental hygiene and receive preventive care, the better equipped they will be to develop healthy habits that last a lifetime.”

Healthy Teeth, Healthy Me emphasizes the easy everyday routines and good habits to keep children’s teeth,mouths and, therefore, bodies healthy and strong. The bilingual (English/Spanish) outreach kit includes an original Sesame Street DVD, a family booklet, public service messages, online community health providers guide, interactive online game, and a downloadable brushy brush song to help make toothbrushing fun.

Three hundred and fifty thousand Healthy Teeth kits, available at no cost, will be distributed throughsuch partners as National WIC Association, the Children’s Health Fund, Alliance for Hispanic Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Sam’s Club, First 5 Association of California, and other community-based organizations working with families with young children. Additionally, the materials will beavailable for free on iTunes and Amazon VOD in the Learn Along with Sesame section. 

“This is an opportunity for Sesame Street to continue to use its influence to help families and their children make healthy decisions about oral health at a time when nurturing children’s overall development is so critical and the subsequent positive effects can last a lifetime,” said Sherrie Westin, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Sesame Workshop. “We are excited to partner with Sam’s Club and MetLife Foundation bringing these much needed resources to families with young children."

About MetLife Foundation
MetLife Foundation was established in 1976 to carry on MetLife’s long-standing tradition of corporate contributions and community involvement. The Foundation is committed to building a secure future for individuals andcommunities worldwide. Through programs focusing on empowering older adults, preparing young people and building livable communities, MetLife Foundation increases access and opportunities for people of all ages. Since it was established, MetLife Foundation has made more than $530 million in grants and $75 million in program related investments. For more information visit www.metlife.org

About Sam’s Club Giving Made Simple
Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE: WMT), is the nation’s eighth largest retailer and a leading membership warehouse club offering superior products and services to more than 47 million members in clubs across the U.S., as well as in Brazil, China and Mexico. Members save an average of 30 percent over traditional retailers. To learn more about Savings Made SimpleSM, visit SamsClub.com, and look for Sam’s Club on Twitter and Facebook.

About Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit educational organization that revolutionized children’s television programming with the landmark Sesame Street. The Workshop produces local Sesame Street programs, seen in over 150 countries, and other acclaimed shows to help bridge the literacy gap including The Electric Company. Beyond television, the Workshop produces content for multiple media platforms on a wide range of issues including literacy, health and military deployment. Initiatives meet specific needs to help young children and families develop critical skills, acquire healthy habits and build emotional strength to prepare them for lifelong learning. Learn more at www.sesameworkshop.org.

A Joseph Ross May 04, 2012 at 05:17 AM
As I read or your problems getting your kids to brush properly, I thought of how in my childhood, Colgate toothpaste was a sponsor of Howdy Doody. As part of the commercial, Buffalo Bob would explain how to brush, while Clarabell the Clown demonstrated with a big tooth brush and a picture of a mouth. So now it's Sesame Street. I'm glad you have the same sort of help my parents had. Joe Ross
Grahame Turner May 04, 2012 at 04:57 PM
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Apparently getting kids' characters to encourage toothbrushing is a successful tactic. If anyone finds that Howdy Doody video floating around YouTube or somewhere, it could be make for a pretty interesting addition. Let us know!

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