How Often Should Kids Brush Their Teeth? The Great Debate

Like taking a bath, tooth brushing is one of those must-do activities that kids tend to start out loving (who hasn’t had toddlers insist on clutching a toothbrush as they walk around the house once or twice) but eventually most grow to hate. They usually need to be reminded to do it, then checked on to ensure they brush for longer than two seconds, and let’s not even discuss flossing.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm, tooth brushing is one of the most important parts of a child’s daily hygiene routine. Given the sugary diets of most American kids, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease — five times more common than asthma, and four times more common than early-childhood obesity. It turns out regular and thorough tooth brushing is the best defense, so how often, exactly, should kids brush their teeth?

The number of toddlers and preschoolers with cavities continues to rise, according to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s not surprising, given that the CDC also reports the consumption of added sugar remains high among children and adolescents, with boys taking in even more added sugars per day than girls (for both sexes, the vast majority of added sugars are consumed at home). Most parents know that too much sugar is bad for children’s teeth, among a zillion other things, yet a great many more are still unsure about the frequency and proper way to care for their child’s teeth, according to research from University College London. 

One study revealed parents are more likely to nudge kids to brush in the morning than the evening, but that extra brushing is definitely worth it: Children who brushed once a day or less had 64 percent more cavities than those who brushed at least twice, according to researchers at Scotland’s University of Dundee Dental School.

“Brushing regularly is absolutely the most important oral hygiene habit kids can develop,” Victoria Veytsman, DDS, owner of Cosmetic Dental Studios in New York City, tells Yahoo Parenting. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends running a clean, damp cloth over a baby’s gums to keep them free of bacteria. Once teeth begin popping up, brush with an infant toothbrush and a tiny bit of fluoride toothpaste, say the experts at Nemours’ KidsHealth. Around age 2, ask children to spit to avoid swallowing toothpaste. Kids 3 and older need only a pea-size amount of fluoride toothpaste. The AAPD recommends all kids see a dentist by their first birthday to learn proper brushing and flossing. Regardless of age, all kids should be brushing thoroughly for two minutes at least twice a day, both in the morning and evening.

As far as which kind of toothbrush to use, both manual and powered are recommended by the AAPD, but many dentists, such as Veytsman, prefer the latter. “These brushes can remove twice as much plaque with half the effort of manual brushes. They also come in fun colors and have timers.” When choosing a manual toothbrush, look for soft, round bristles made specifically for children (they’re designed for small mouths, and they help kids control the toothbrush easily). Just be sure to supervise until kids are about 7 or 8, and toss out brushes after three months (or sooner if the bristles begin to fray). You might be surprised to learn the AAPD recommends that kids begin flossing once per day as soon as there are two teeth that touch. All kids should visit the dentist twice per year for checkups.

“My husband and I help our 2-year-old son brush his teeth at least twice a day (morning and before bed). I’d never given much thought to this before … it’s something we automatically do because ‘it is the right thing to do’ to prevent cavities and treat bad breath. — Natasha Smith, Kirkland, Wash.

“Kids should brush their teeth twice a day: first thing in the morning and last thing at night. This creates a good habit they will follow for the rest of their life. That’s important because a lot of baby boomers today have dentures due to the lack of oral hygiene.” — Christopher Sharp, Phoenix

“Morning and night. Our dentist gave us an hourglass timer that the kids use so they know how long to brush for.” —Abbie Rose 

The general consensus among experts is that kids should be brushing at least twice per day, but if you can sneak in a third brushing, especially after sugary snacks, dentists will probably cheer you. “Brushing at a young age helps develop good habits as an adult,” Veytsman says. “It’s important to keep primary teeth healthy to avoid fillings or extractions [later].” Keep an eye on kids until they can be trusted to follow the guidelines for proper oral hygiene on their own, and keep up with their twice-yearly dental checkups to ensure their teeth are growing in properly.

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