Brushing tips from a pro

Some of the most common questions my staff gets asked daily are regarding the recommended toothpaste and toothbrush for children. Which toothpaste is the best? What do I recommend? Should you use fluoride? Also, which toothbrush is best to use? Are electric toothbrushes more effective?

When deciding on the type of toothbrush to use it is important to note that it is the technique that counts more than the brush. Young children, in general, are not dexterous enough to do a thorough job cleaning their own teeth using a manual or electric toothbrush. Parental assistance in tooth brushing is much more beneficial than misusing an expensive brush.

Many soft-bristle toothbrushes can do a good job, however, market research suggests that a rotating and oscillating electric toothbrush removes more plaque than a manual toothbrush, and reduces gingivitis more effectively.

Either way, allow your child to brush his own teeth first so that he gets used to the habit, then follow it up with your own brushing, for at least 90 seconds, using a manual or electric toothbrush aimed at a 45-degree angle toward the gums.

A toothbrush should be replaced every three months, or when the bristles are no longer firm and straight. Using an old brush could cause damage to your child’s gums, so your investment in a new, age-proper toothbrush is well worth it.

Most toothpaste brands have the same amount of fluoride in them. The ones that market themselves as natural toothpaste, as well as the ones made for babies and toddlers, do not have any fluoride. Fluoride toothpaste is generally recommended for children who are at least 2 or 3 years old. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry began recommending an even earlier exposure to fluoride toothpaste. The idea is that we don’t want children swallowing too much of it, but we do want to provide the benefit of fluoride as early as possible. You should always limit the amount of fluoridated toothpaste given to your child, according to how well you think he can spit it out.

By age 5 or 6, most children are fairly capable of spitting out most of the toothpaste. As long as you keep the amount of toothpaste small, even if he does swallow some of the toothpaste, no real harm is caused. Remember, even adults only require “pea size” amount of toothpaste for effective tooth brushing. That means a young child requires much less than that. Fluoride content is the only significant element of good toothpaste. It’s what prevents cavities and makes our teeth stronger. The rest is pretty much appearance, taste, and the added whitener, Triclosan, as well as some tartar control.

As far as what toothpaste I recommend for children, it’s the one they are most likely to use; if they like it, they will use it. There’s no point in having a great toothpaste your child will not be motivated to use. If your child likes sparkles or bubblegum, get that one! In fact, your child should be picking out his own toothpaste the same way you let him pick a toy.

Brushing without toothpaste is similar to washing your hands without soap. At the same time, brushing without toothpaste is still much better than no brushing at all; so if your child doesn’t like any toothpaste, brush with water.

And don’t give up, there are so many brands out there, you’ll probably find something he will like soon enough. If you find a creative way to get your child to like toothpaste, please share your experience with your pediatric dentist on your child’s next visit. They will certainly appreciate the advice.

Dr. Elan Kaufman is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry, and founder of Children’s Dental Foundation, Inc.