Brushing and Toothpaste for Children

Brushing your child's teeth should begin when the teeth first begin to come in, or as directed by your child's doctor or pediatric dentist. Children will need help brushing their teeth until they are around the age of 7 to 8. Even before your child actually has teeth, it is important to perform mouth care. Using a damp washcloth or piece of gauze, gently rub it over your infant's gums to help clean the mouth. A soft toothbrush, wet with water, may be used after your infant has developed some teeth. Experts advise consulting your child's dentist regarding the appropriate time for your toddler to begin using toothpaste. Use only a very small amount of toothpaste, because young children will often swallow it, instead of spitting it out.

The importance of brushing

The single best way to remove harmful plaque -- a thin, sticky film loaded with bacteria -- from teeth and gums is to brush teeth regularly and properly.

What is the proper technique for teeth brushing?

Because every mouth is different, there is more than one technique of brushing that has proven to be effective. Deciding which technique is most appropriate for your child depends largely on your child's teeth positions and gum condition. Consult your child's pediatric dentist to determine which brushing technique is most appropriate for your child's mouth.

Generally, most dentists recommend a circular technique for brushing. This includes brushing only a small group of teeth at a time -- gradually covering the entire mouth. The importance of maintaining a circular or elliptical motion is emphasized, as using a back and forth motion may cause the following:

  • Receding gums

  • Exposed and sensitive root surface

  • Wearing down of the root surfaces at the gum line

Instead, dentists recommend the following method:

Picture of a dentist instructing a young girl on proper toothbrushing techniques

Step 1: Place the toothbrush beside the teeth at a 45-degree angle.

Step 2: Gently brush only a small group of teeth at a time (in a circular or elliptical motion) until the entire mouth is covered.

Step 3: Brush the outside of the teeth, inside of the teeth, and the chewing surfaces.

Step 4: Gently brush the tongue to remove bacteria and freshen breath.

Step 5: Repeat steps one through four at least twice daily, especially after meals and snacks.

What type of toothbrush should be used?

A toothbrush head should be small -- about 1 inch by 1/2 inch -- and should have a handle suitable for firm grasping. The bristles of the brush should be soft, nylon, and rounded at the ends. This helps ensure that the brush bristles are kind to the gums and tooth surfaces. Soft, polished bristles allow you to reach into the crevice (sulcus) between the teeth and gums to remove plaque without damaging the gums. Some brushes are too abrasive and can wear down the enamel on teeth. Thus, in most cases, medium and hard bristles are not recommended. Only gentle pressure is needed when brushing to remove the plaque. Excessive pressure can cause the gums to recede and can abrade the tooth surface. 

How often is brushing necessary?

Generally, brushing is recommended twice a day for at least three to four minutes each time. People generally think they are brushing long enough, when, in fact, most people spend less than one minute brushing. In addition, it is generally better to brush three to four minutes twice a day instead of brushing quickly five or more times throughout the day.

Dentists advise brushing teeth during the day while at school or play. Keeping a toothbrush handy -- in a desk or backpack -- increases the chance that your child will brush during the day.

What is toothpaste?

Picture of a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste

Also called dentifrice, toothpaste is comprised of the following cleaning ingredients (stated in approximate percentages):

  • Humectant and water (75 percent)

  • Abrasive (20 percent)

  • Foaming and flavoring agents (2 percent)

  • pH buffers (2 percent)

  • Coloring agents, binders, and opacifiers (1.5 percent)

  • Fluoride (.24 percent)

Facts about toothpaste

Brushing with toothpaste (particularly toothpaste with fluoride) helps to:

  • Remove plaque

  • Resist decay

  • Promote remineralization (strengthening enamel that has been attacked by acids) 

  • Clean and polish teeth

  • Remove teeth stains

  • Freshen breath

Note: It is advised to consult your child's dentist regarding the appropriate time for your toddler to begin using toothpaste.

Which type of toothpaste is best?

Fluoride is the most crucial ingredient in toothpaste. As long as the toothpaste contains fluoride, the brand or type (paste, gel, or powder) generally does not matter. All fluoride toothpastes work effectively to fight plaque and cavities, and to clean and polish tooth enamel. The brand you choose should bear the American Dental Association (ADA) seal of approval on the container, which means that adequate evidence of safety and efficacy have been demonstrated in controlled, clinical trials.

Some toothpastes offer tartar control pyrophosphates to prevent the build-up of soft calculus deposits on teeth, while others offer whitening formulas to safely remove stains, making teeth brighter and shinier. But, contrary to clever advertising and popular belief, fluoride is the true active ingredient that works the hardest to protect your child's teeth.


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