Children's Health and Wellness

Brushing and Toothpaste for Children

Dental healthcare provider showing boy how to brush teeth.
Even before your child's teeth have erupted, it's important to start mouth care. Using a damp washcloth or piece of gauze, gently rub it over your infant's gums to help clean the mouth. Brushing your child's teeth should begin when the first tooth appears. Use a small amount of fluoride toothpaste, about the size of a grain of rice, on a soft-bristled toothbrush. When your child is about 3, you can use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste. Your child will need help brushing his or her teeth until the age of about 7 or 8.

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 best 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. Circular or elliptical motion is important, as using a back and forth motion may cause the following:

  • Receding gums

  • Exposed and sensitive root surface

  • Wearing down of the crown and root surfaces at the gum line

Instead, dentists recommend the following method:


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 1 through 4 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 2 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 2 minutes twice a day instead of brushing quickly 5 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?

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

  • Humectant (helps control moisture) and water (75%)

  • Abrasive (20%)

  • Foaming and flavoring agents (2%)

  • pH buffers (2%)

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

  • Fluoride (.24 %)

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 best 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 evidence of safety and efficacy have been demonstrated in controlled, clinical trials.

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

Online Source: American Academy of Pediatrics. Fluoride Use in Caries Prevention in the Primary Care Setting
Online Source: American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry
Online Source: American Dental Association
Online Source: American Dental Association
Online Source: American Dental Association
Online Source: Oral Health, American Academy of Pediatrics
Online Editor: Metzger, Geri K.
Online Medical Reviewer: Eakle, W. Stephan, DDS
Online Medical Reviewer: Images Reviewed by Staywell medical art team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Kapner, Michael, DDS
Date Last Reviewed: 9/19/2015
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